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An Office of Her Own: Female Lawmakers Defy Hurdles in Quest to Govern

Rep. Carolyn Maloney was pregnant and terrified that if she told she'd lose her job.

It was the 1980s and the New York Democrat's career was on the rise as senior staffer in the state Senate's minority leader's office, but there were others, men mostly, jockeying to take her place.

And, as she wrote in her book, "Rumors of our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated", the state Senate's human resources representative "wasn't even polite" when asked about leave options. So Maloney got creative and asked a friend of hers to fill in while she was out.

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"I remember being scared that I would lose my job when telling my boss I was pregnant with my first child and this jolted something in me," she told NBC News.

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She realized that the attitude toward women and politics had to change, but not without women being a "part of the conversation." She would later become the first woman elected to Congress from her district after she defeated 15-year incumbent Bill Green for his seat in Congress.

She was elected to congress in 1992—the so-called "year of the woman", a period when a historic number of women were elected to the U.S. Senate. The next year she supported the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993, signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

"While we have made great strides, there is still systemic discrimination in our society," Maloney said.

It is an experience and perspective women elected to office and interviewed by NBC News on the topic said they share.

Image: Representative Carolyn Maloney
U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) speaks at a rally for paid family leave on January 29, 2016 in New York City. Andrew Burton / Getty Images, file

During the last 20 years, the number of women in politics has increased, but they only make up 19 percent of Congress going into the 2016 presidential election.

There is "not a supply problem but a demand problem," said Jennifer Lawless, a professor at American University.

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"When women run, they do just as well as men. Female incumbents are re-elected at the same rate as male incumbents. Female challengers win just as much as male challengers," Lawless said she found when researching her 2010 book "It Still Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don't Run for Office".

The issue is getting women to run for office in the first place.

Kira Sanbonmatsu, associate professor of political science at Rutgers University said women do just as well, or even better than men when they run for office because both are "equally competitive," but when looking at the numbers based on gender, women don't step up to the plate as often.

"Over time, political scientists have moved away from the theory that voters wouldn't elect women," Sanbonmatsu said. "That idea doesn't seem to be the problem."

According to Poised to Run: Women's Pathways to the State Legislatures, an analysis from Rutgers' Center of American Women and Politics, female political hopefuls struggle in two key areas: political ambition and attracting party support to utilize resources.

"If you're thinking about running for office, go for it. Women, and I am sometimes guilty of this, often wait to be asked to take charge," Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who represents Washington state and is the highest ranking Republican woman in Congress told NBC News.

But studies show that women are less likely to envision themselves as running for office compared to men. In a 2008 Center of American Women and Politics study of candidate recruitment, 53 percent of women polled agreed that they had not seriously thought about running until someone else suggested.

By comparison, 43 percent of men who responded said it was "entirely their idea to run".

Though there is a pool of qualified men and women in high levels of education and political involvement "political socialization in childhood, in schools and in society at large" leads to a difference between the two genders in self-perception, said Gina Woodall, lecturer at Arizona State University.

"Women don't want to take the 'plunge' to run for office at the same rate as men do," Woodall said.

Women holding some of the nation's highest elected offices say they'd love to increase their ranks.

"Women have a lot to offer in leadership positions — not only for the value they bring, but to be that role model for the next generation of women leaders," McMorris Rodgers said. "People often say women are better listeners, trustworthy, problem solvers. We want to get things done. Whether it's Congress or the executive suite, women need to be at the table."

Image: Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) waits for the start of a Women's History Month reception in honor of women veterans on Capitol Hill, March 2, 2016 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer / Getty Images, file

She added that she is "fortunate" to have had such models that encouraged her to seek opportunities and take risk.

However, even when women do seek public office they often run into challenges.

"People still think they should be relegated to domestic kinds of activities," Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Florida, told NBC News, The glass ceiling for women continues to exist, she said, because "of the perception that a woman's place is in the home, not in politics or even being employed."

Image: Rep. Frederica Wilson
House Education and the Workforce Committee member Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., attends a conference of House and Senate negotiators try to resolve competing versions of a rewrite to the No Child Left Behind education law, on Nov. 18, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Jacquelyn Martin / AP, file

It is a problem that goes far beyond politics.

Women are doing well at building their own campaigns but the lower numbers of women running for office is a reflection of a glass ceiling of across professions, said Michele Swers, an American government professor at Georgetown University.

"You seem to have more women that are college graduates but very few women that are on the boards of fortune 500 companies," Swers said. "So at the highest levels, there seems to be this ceiling where you get smaller percentages of women."

PARTY SUPPORT

The few who do seek office often run into issues netting broader support for their candidacies, political experts and lawmakers said.

In 1992, the year Maloney initially ran for Congress, heralded a sudden increase in the number of Democratic women in federal office.

According to the Center of American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, of the 100-seats in the Senate, there are 16 Democratic women and four female Republicans.

There are 62 Democratic women and 17 female Republican lawmakers in the 435-seat House.

Swers believes the partisan disparity is because of the polarization of American politics".

"Since the 1970s, women's groups have become a more important part of the Democratic activist base and Democrats rely on specific segments of women voters to help them win elections," Swers said. "These voters and the Democratic base of feminist groups value diversity in politics and want to see more representation of women in Congress so they are more willing to support and donate to women candidates and are more responsive to calls to elect more women and minorities."

Women often also "have to build (their) own campaign and convince local parties that you are a valid candidate by raising a certain amount of money," Swers said.

Democratic groups, such as Emily's List, which supports pro-choice Democratic women running for congressional and gubernatorial office, can offer influential support which is a defining factor for success of a candidacy. Republicans have groups that advocate for female candidates such as Maggie's List, a political action committee focused on electing conservative women, and Susan B Anthony List, a group which back pro-life candidates.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, believes that the differences in the numbers of Republican and Democratic women in Congress partly has to do with personal choices.

Image: Rep. Marsha Blackburn
House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives Chair Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., presides over the committee’s investigating Planned Parenthood, Wednesday, March 1, 2016, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP, file

"Part of the diversity of experience of conservative women is they tend to come to elective office later in their career, rather than earlier," Blackburn said. Rep. Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican, is considered the first millennial ever elected to office to break this barrier.

Image: Rep. Elise Stefanik
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., walks down the House steps following a vote in the Capitol on Oct. 23, 2015. Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call via Getty Images, file

But there's also gender bias that needs to be "recognized in the conservative circle," Blackburn said.

"It is seen more often in conservative circles and less in liberal circles...It is an issue that (we) must recognize and work to ensure that the electorate sees you as the most well qualified person for the job," Blackburn said.

On both sides of the aisle, party leaders must be willing to look and recruit qualified women, female lawmakers said.

"All women in politics are trailblazers," Maloney said. "As women, we must keep making history."