Let’s take a look at women’s entry into government, at home and abroad, US women’s participation levels, and impact of women’s contributions in today’s government as in today’s businesses.
How are these women shaping government? Citizen engagement and labor practices show some patterns in women’s contribution.
To date, women have led their countries as presidents and prime ministers in recent decades in countries on every continent, including the UK, Germany, India, Argentina, France, Ireland, China, Australia, Canada, Pakistan, Turkey — the list goes on. According to United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) reports, other than monarchs, the executive branch of government has seen women in notably fewer numbers than other branches of government. Socialist countries in the mid-20th century were the first with top female leaders, followed by Nordic countries in the 1980s. In 2003, Finland’s top three executive positions in the country — President, Speaker of the Parliament, and Prime Minister — were held and represented by three different political parties.
According to UN.org, in 1995 United Nation delegates encouraged that women represent 30 percent of their governments. Today, women in legislatures average 21.9 percent. The U.S.’s 114th Congress has 19.4 percent women representation: 20 senators and 84 representatives of the total 535 seats. Many countries have much higher female representation (Rwanda 56 percent, Sweden 43.2 percent, Finland 41.5 percent, Argentina 40 percent, Spain 36.3 percent).
Some countries are using quotas to set minimum percentages of candidates that must be women, reserving a certain number of seats, for a more gender-neutral approach preventing a single gender from occupying more than 60 percent or less than 40 percent of the positions in a decision-making body. One con of quotas is that by giving preference to women, they are against the principle of equal opportunity. On the other hand, they do not discriminate, but rather compensate for actual barriers that prevent women’s participation.
Let’s come back to Nebraska for a look at women whose entry into government helped pave the way for local participation. I loved reading about Kathleen Foote, the first woman elected to the Unicameral in 1954.
She was a 27-year-old farm wife in Axtell when she ran for the seat. She’s quoted in a 1970 Lincoln Journal Star interview, “There weren’t any men who could leave their businesses, so people in the county asked me to run, and I did.” The bills she sponsored during her four-year term sought to further education, recreation, highway beautification (a decade earlier than Lady Bird Johnson’s Keep America Beautiful campaign), and an “equal pay for equal work” bill that did not pass. Her interests are remarkably similar to the major strides made in countries today with most female lawmakers on issues like paid leave, labor-force participation, and education.
If engagement is the goal, women showing up for political offices is the factor which will increase participation of women in politics measured by activities in voting turnout, volunteering, and political donations. A 2014 Journal of Politics study found that women citizens take a more active interest in government when represented by women senators.
Workplace flexibility for all workers, not just women.
Thanks to 31-year-old City Council President, Michelle Wu, the City of Boston now offers six weeks of paid leave to any new parent who has worked for the city for at least a year. In a Governing Institute profile, the first Asian-American to serve on the City Council said, “Implementing paid parental leave is fundamental to addressing income inequality and the gender gap.”
I haven’t really thought about “being a ‘woman in government’” — I feel like a relatively young person in government in a family with small children and other part-time work). However, I recognize there were many women who came before me who had to fight for respect: Maria Montessori, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sandra Day O’Connor, to name a few.
I happen to be a woman, I happen to be curious about and grateful for what cities can do. One thing I’ve come to respect is the idea that engineers can get a degree; there’s not really a school for elected officials. In my time on the Hastings City Council, I have learned a lot, here are some things I use to find success:
- Ask for the help you need.
- Have a learning mindset, not perfection mindset. Men tend to take jobs that they know less about, women tend to only apply if they meet the criteria, intuition, learning on the fly, courage to converse— go for it.
- Don’t ignore experience of others. I want to believe we’re all just people— we each have our own challenges.
- Don’t ignore oppression and violent crime. Don’t ignore the small reminders of what happens when a woman is told, “you’re nicer to look at than (male co-worker).”
- Know Resistance is not progressive. Of discussion, of compromise, of useful criticism, of sharing dissent with respect.
- Lean into the speed a little. Be completely honest about one’s own limitations, and the limitations of an organization. Believe you can do anything, and know you can’t do everything.
- Over communicate, respectfully.Most of the time, I regret not saying something.
- Show up. When going gets tough, continue to show up.
- Avoid haste and inaction. Meditatively consider logical next steps, be willing to sit with the uncertainty. I venture to claim that generally, the greater your patience with uncertainty and dedication to courageous conversation/next steps, the better the outcome, the more effective the consensus, the more thorough the work, the more attractive the solution. Patrice Martin said, “Embrace ambiguity: don’t know the answer and give permission to explore.”