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By Prachi Gupta from Cosmopolitan Magazine

Congress is sexist. So says Illinois Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, a former journalist and health-care executive who in 2012 became the first woman from her district to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. As she faces reelection in November, one of her top missions is to flood Congress with women and people of color so the lawmakers drafting bills "truly reflect the makeup of America."

Bustos spoke to at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Women's Issues Conference in New York City on Monday, where party leaders like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi celebrated one dozen women currently running for Congress. Among them are former Orlando police chief Val Demings, former Maine state senator Emily Cain, and Cedar Rapids City Council member Monica Vernon — who, if elected, would become the first woman Iowa has ever placed in the US House of Representatives.

"Let's look at the fact that equal pay for equal work has not made progress. What other explanation can there be other than that there's some sexism at play?" said Bustos, who serves as the vice chair of the DCCC's recruitment committee and co-chair of the Red to Blue committee, an effort to put Democrats in seats currently occupied by Republicans. "Why are we not making progress on campus sexual assault? Why are we not making more progress on sexual assault in the military? These are issues that are mostly female victims that we're talking about. Women can relate to this issue in a way that is very, very personal," she said.

"I mean, can you imagine if we had a woman president, a woman Speaker of the House and if we picked up more seats in Congress with women members? Can you even imagine that those issues wouldn't make some headway?" Bustos asked.

Though women are 51 percent of the population, they make up just 19 percent of Congress, 24 percent of state legislators, and 12 percent of governors, according to the Representation 2020 Project. At the current rate of change, according to research by the Institute for Women' Policy, political parity for women is still over a century away. 

Bustos, who has campaigned for all these female candidates, says that recruiting women is a "very different process" than for recruiting men. "Women typically, the first questions they ask is how is this going to impact my family? How do you take it, running for political office, when it is so nasty?" she explains. Women are also concerned "about whether they will be able to grasp the complexity of the issues that face our nation," she says. "Men are typically like, 'Can I win?' I kid you not."

Bustos's observations are backed up by empirical research. According to a 2012 study by the Women & Politics Institute at American University's School of Public Affairs, compared to men, women are less encouraged to run for political office, are less likely to consider themselves qualified for office, are more likely to perceive a negative bias from the media, and are still responsible for a majority of household- and family-related work.

In an on-stage interview with Cosmopolitan editor Joanna Coles during a luncheon at the event, Pelosi encouraged more women to participate in politics — and to stop being humble. "I want our candidates to be immodest," she said. "Have confidence, be strong, be proud. And take credit for who you are and what you do."

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