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Commentary: Women hold powerful government positions, but not enough are involved in public service
0529Kathleen Woodward
Kathleen Woodward

Do we need programs to encourage women to become leaders in public service (politics, non-profits, the judicial system, and in the community), or do programs that target a specific group of people create tension in society by dividing people into different categories?

This is a question I have been pondering the last two years since I began coordinating the "Women's Leadership in Public Service Institute," a near week-long residential program that brings in college students from across Georgia and exposes them to a variety of women leaders in politics, non-profits, community activism, and corporations engaged in serving communities.

Male colleagues at Gainesville State College will sometimes ask me, "Why does the program focus on women?" Asking if it is helpful or harmful to society to have programs that target specific groups of people for training and inspiration should not be inferred as indicating an underlying sexist or, in regard to other programs targeting different populations, racist motive. Questioning the usefulness of targeting populations is a valid question deserving thoughtful discussion and debate.

There are many programs encouraging leadership with no specific group of people targeted, so why add a program specific for encouraging women? Are we not just strengthening existing divisions within a society already fractured by race, sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and citizenship status? Should we not be working to come together, not strengthening divisions and categorizing people? After all, do not women want to be "treated equally?"

My answer begins by discussing the nature of equality. In my mind, equality does not mean we are all the same. To the contrary, we all have different experiences, cultures, upbringings, and yes, different physical attributes. Women have different body parts, and even slight differences in our brains. These differences do not mean men or women are not capable of performing the same tasks or holding the same jobs.

It does mean, however, that men and women have different life experiences that shape how they view the world. These differences, combined with an uncertainty about what a woman leader in public service should look like, create the need for programs that target women, especially in the realm of public service leadership.

Women now earn more college degrees in the U.S. than do men. However, the U.S. Congress has only 17 percent of its seats filled by women. The media highlights a handful of famous women politicians, which may give the impression that women are represented equally to men in the world of politics. This is a false image. Women have gained little to no ground in political representation since the early 1990s: In fact, after "The Year of the Woman" (the 2010 election), several states now have slightly fewer women in political office. True, we have witnessed women in some key leadership roles: Speaker of the House and Secretary of State. However, the fact remains that women are half the population but only 17 percent of the national legislative body that governs us.

Should we care if so few women are in politics and other areas of public service? The answer is "yes" because women bring unique perspectives to the policy-making process. Think of the Thanksgiving dinner table. The conversation changes when a woman sits down with the men. It changes even more if three women sit down. The same is true of the policy-making table. With women comprising half the population over which our legislatures and other branches of government rule, they need to be in the policy-making conversation and not merely "virtually represented" as King George III told the American Colonists they were represented in the British Parliament.

Since it is important to bring women's unique perspectives to public service leadership, we need programs that target women in order to show women that it is possible to pursue a path in politics and other areas of public service and to show women that they can still be themselves. Studies have shown that even after decades of "women's rights" movements and legal cases enforcing equal treatment under the law, women still have trouble visualizing themselves as leaders in the public realm, especially in the "dirty" field of politics.

The media portrays both Democratic and Republican women in a variety of negative lights through its choices of sound bites and video clips to show the public. Women themselves frequently teach their girl children to be quiet, listen well, and play nicely. Many socio-cultural, and even biological, factors align to make it difficult for women to visualize themselves being a "good" and socially accepted woman, but also a politician or community organizer engaged in debate, strategy, and competition.

For instance, I was taught as a girl by my mother, as are many girls today, to, "Just let the boys win in games so you do not hurt their egos and create an argument." Even for women who were not taught this strategy for getting through life more easily, they had to suffer the consequences of challenging and beating the boys. How, therefore, are women supposed to learn to suddenly compete and beat other people - men or women - and not feel pangs of guilt? Does she need to become one of those b---- shown on TV? What is a woman leader supposed to look like, especially one other women would want to be?

Due to all these factors that make women's life experiences different from men's, the reasons why it is important to have women sit at policy making tables, and the need for women to grapple with the question of what does a woman leader look and act like, we need programs that specifically encourage and train women for public service leadership. Programs targeting women include elements of women supporting other women, sharing stories and lessons learned, inter-generational education, and perhaps most importantly, showing that there is no one "look" or "way of acting" for women leaders. Just as male leaders run the gamut of affable teddy-bear to stern disciplinarian type personas, so too do, and will, women leaders' personas run across a gamut of options.

There is no one face of women's leadership, nor do women leaders fall neatly into the "dizzy" or "b----" categories. There are a lot of options in between and only when more women with various personas are seen in public service leadership roles, will the negative stereotypes of these women fade away. To get there, we need to encourage more women to seek political office, judgeships, and other leadership roles in our communities so that the talents and unique perspectives of women can be utilized fully for the betterment of society.

Therefore, women need to be encouraged through a variety of means, including programs with the specific purpose of preparing women for these roles. These programs will strengthen and unite society, not divide it, by helping women to participate fully in their own governance through sitting at the table with men.

Kathleen Woodward is an assistant professor of political science and chairwoman of the Department of Political Science, Criminal Justice, Philosophy and Religion at Gainesville State College.

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