Specialized Programs Aim to Increase Female Representation in Public Policy Leadership

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According to the Center for American Women in Politics, female representation in elected U.S. government leadership (e.g., Congress, state legislatures, local government) hovers around 20 percent. This relative lack of representation is significant given that women comprise more than 50 percent of the U.S. population, earn a majority of U.S. higher education degrees, and control much of the domestic purchasing power. Perhaps most notable, though, is that the majority of those making policy decisions on issues affecting women’s health, education, and pay equity are men.

Considering these majorities and the recent surge in efforts to recruit women to run for public office, higher education programming geared toward female students in public policy and administration is gaining significance.

The Case for Women
Nancy Augustine, PhD, a professor and director of admissions at George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, believes that diversity is invaluable in public policy. “The policy process is richer when women and men of color are [also] at the table,” she says.

[Above: Students in George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration]

Studies show that diverse groups are more innovative and lead to greater economic outcomes than those that are not. Recognizing this and its critical application to policymaking and analysis, Trachtenberg offers a Women’s Leadership Fellows (WLF) program to prepare female students to become successful public service leaders.

Fellows participate in monthly meetings, skills-based workshops, a mentoring program, and networking events. Workshops and events focus on training around negotiation, conflict resolution, verbal and nonverbal communication, and management skills. Honing these skills is considered crucial when it comes to closing gender gaps.

The mentoring component of WLF is led by Trachtenberg alumni who offer current fellows coaching and professional development support to help them achieve professional and career objectives.

Augustine says that women’s lived experiences — particularly those balancing work inside and outside of the home — can contribute to understanding the complexity of problems facing not only women, but all citizens, and the appropriateness of associated policy solutions. 

“The Women’s Leadership Fellows program [with its focus on self-empowerment, confidence building, and core leadership competencies] is a great example of how a university can provide instruction and programming” in areas that address the challenges women tend to face, she says. 

Christina Ewig
Christina Ewig

Distinct Obstacles
Christina Ewig, PhD, a professor and faculty director of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, says that in addition to balancing work and family responsibilities, other factors often affect women’s decision to pursue leadership roles in nonprofit sectors or public office.

“In part, culture is at play. [There are] subtle and not so subtle messages sent in our society that men are somehow [better] suited for leadership than women,” Ewig explains. “Those messages direct women away from pursuing leadership positions even when they are very well qualified.” When it comes to elected public office, for example, she cites the “typical profile of an elected official that tends to include a law or business background.” She believes that because these fields have been traditionally male-dominated, women coming from different backgrounds may not see themselves fitting that profile.

Muna Killingback, assistant program director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston’s McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, points to an additional challenge. “When some women feel drawn to work for the betterment of society, they often choose or are guided to direct service work.— such as social work, local volunteer work, or roles in community-based nonprofit organizations,” she says.

Notably, however, some of those women eventually “hit a wall” with direct service, Killingback says. “They have seen societal problems firsthand and have great ideas for solutions,” she explains. “They want to learn how to implement their policy ideas and to do work that is more transformational.”

Students in the GLPP program at the University of Massachusetts Boston’s McCormack Graduate School listen to a speaker during an event.
Students in the GLPP program at the University of Massachusetts Boston’s McCormack Graduate School listen to a speaker during an event.

The McCormack School’s graduate program in Gender, Leadership, and Public Policy (GLPP) attracts a lot of these women. The first of its kind in the U.S., Killingback says the program combines the political theory of social change with an intersectional feminist analysis of current issues facing the country. “We also place students in hands-on policy-making settings through an internship where they can gain experience, build networks, compare policy theory with reality, … and share and debrief their internship experiences with classmates,” she explains. 

The GLPP cohort is “deliberately diverse — in race, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic levels, [and] professional and academic backgrounds,” according to Killingback. “This is so students see and understand policy through the lens of other people’s experiences,” she says.

The program’s unique focus on both policy and gender analysis contributes to its track record of launching women into leadership roles; three GLPP graduates are elected members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, for example. In addition, Killingback says that the program has generated interest from out-of-state students, which in turn has spurred discussion of a possible online parallel to the on-site track for students who cannot come to Boston.

Shaping Future Leaders
Ewig believes that public policy schools can play an important role in recruiting and educating future female policy leaders. “[They] can provide the skills necessary for effective public policy analysis and formulation,” she says. “In addition, they can [offer] the specific strategic know-how and networks that can help women see themselves as leaders and succeed in becoming leaders.”

Students from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs met with Minnesota US Sen. Amy Klobuchar during the School's annual career exploration trip to Washington, DC. March 17, 2016.
Students from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs met with Minnesota US Sen. Amy Klobuchar during the School’s annual career exploration trip to Washington, DC. March 17, 2016.

Toward that end, the Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs — of which Ewig is the director — was founded more than 30 years ago as the nation’s first comprehensive teaching, research, and outreach center devoted to women and public policy. To help recruit and prepare these future policy leaders, the center provides specialized professional development workshops for mid-career women in Minnesota and for global leaders who visit the state for short-term fellowships. 

“We are also in the design and funding-identification stage to develop a gender and leadership institute,” says Ewig. The planned institute would specifically address women’s leadership; however, the University of Minnesota also currently offers other leadership programs not specific to women.

Killingback agrees that colleges and universities have a key role to play in training women to assume leadership roles in public policy and administration, but says that they sometimes miss the opportunity to do so. “Universities need to create opportunities and spaces for women to lead, to link them with mentors — who may often be alumnae — and to generally encourage women to develop leadership skills,” she says.
Furthermore, Augustine believes in the power of higher education to open the door
to advancement in many fields. “For both men and women, institutions of higher education provide the knowledge, skills, contacts, credentials, and leadership opportunities that anybody could use as a foundation for a career in public policy,” explains Augustine.

For Killingback, attracting talented women to public policy leadership is not just about responsive programming, but proper perspective as well. “We see each of our students as potential leaders and look at the qualities and experience they each bring into the program,” she says. “There is clearly a need for more women’s leadership in this country. We are trying to meet that need because we know that greater participation of women [in public policy] will make a tremendous difference.”●

Kelley R. Taylor is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.