By Stacy Fitzgerald-Redd, Member of WWPR and WWPR Professional Development Committee; Director, Communications North American Insulation Manufacturers Association (NAIMA)
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Washington Women in Public Relations
Susannah Wellford, President, Running Start
Avis Jones-DeWeever, President and CEO, Incite Unlimited
Katie Martin, Communications Director, National Republican Congressional Committee
Moderator: Danielle Hagen, Senior VP Nahigian Strategies
Presenters during the March 17 WWPR panel discussion on women in politics and policy led a frank, revealing dialogue about the barriers that prevent women from pursuing careers in these fields –with the panelists reaching agreement on some things, yet offering unique perspectives on some issues.
Speakers included Susannah Wellford, President of Running Start, an organization that mentors and encourages young women to run for public office, Katie Martin, Communications Director for the National Republican Congressional Committee, and Avis Jones-DeWeever, Ph.D., former director of the National Council of Negro Women and an expert on issues affecting women and minorities.
“Unlike men, most women interested in policy and politics feel they have to be qualified to enter the field,” said Jones-DeWeever. “Often times the limitations they face are self-imposed and you don’t see that with men.”
Expanding on the barriers that prevent more women from participating in policy and politics, Wellford said women are more likely to feel that they have to have made significant accomplishments before they can make a meaningful impact, when in reality, being passionate about issues and committed to making a positive impact is enough to get started and galvanize support from a community. “People want to vote for someone who is real and authentic and women are great at conveying that,” Wellford stated.
The panelists advocated for more women to get in involved in politics and policy, concluding that many potentially great candidates for office are turned off by the negativity and gridlock – particularly in Washington. “More women in government would mean more compromise to break gridlock and get things done,” Martin argued.
The speakers noted that sexism can taint public perception for women in a way that it doesn’t affect men. Martin used the example of a Republican congressman who posed shirtless on the cover of Men’s Health magazine. “If a congresswoman were to pose in a bikini on the cover of a magazine there would definitely be backlash,” she told attendees. Another way that sexism unfairly influences public perception of women relates to perceived strength. A strong, assertive, confident man is called a great leader, but a woman with the same traits will often be judged differently.
“While it’s true that women have to walk a fine line between being tough and being effective, you can be a nice girl and still be a boss,” Martin concluded.