Women are leveraging their knack for collaboration and team-building to successfully tackle public policy and government issues — a sector in which they are grossly underrepresented. But is what they bring to the table really different from men? In true political fashion, the question is up for debate.
Take Elle magazine’s fourth annual Washington Power List of 10 women who hold lofty positions, including president at the Center for American Progress, COO of Politico, U.S. Secretary of Congress and chief congressional correspondent at CNN. The article goes so far as to declare women as key players “when it seemed like everyone in Washington was shut-down, gridlocked, and polarized.”
But was this group of powerhouses able to save the day simply because they’re women? Some data supports the argument. A study by Caliper found female leaders to be “more persuasive than their male counterparts.” More than 80 percent of business leaders in a Bentley survey perceive women as having better communication and interpersonal skills.
Given the findings, it sounds like women have what it takes to tackle politics — and maybe they’re even better at it than men. But Rob DeLeo, assistant professor of global public policy at Bentley, warns against labeling men and women with particular traits; doing so could actually take us a step back when it comes to gender equality and government.
“Women and men vary only slightly in terms of their inherent skills and traits,” he says of his eight years of teaching public policy and political science. “Both are more than capable of succeeding, but unfortunately women have historically faced enormous social and institutional barriers to participating in politics and policy. Although these formal barriers have begun to erode, evidence suggests we still have a long way to go before achieving equality.”
The facts back him up. According to the Center for Women in American Politics, women make up less than 20 percent of the U.S. Congress and 23 percent of state legislatures, while 24 percent hold a state executive office. America has never had a female president, and plum bureaucratic posts overwhelmingly go to men.
The looming question, then, is how can we up the ante and create inroads for women? Traci Abbott points to higher education when it comes to impacting the development of female leaders.
“There is a perception that women do not have what it takes to be leaders, and research has indicated that a college education is a key factor in countering such attitudes in both male and female students,” says Abbott, lecturer in English and media studies and coordinator of the Gender Studies Program at Bentley. “Both male and female students should be exposed to examples of not only women in leadership positions, but also the qualities of successful leaders. We then need to encourage them toward developing these traits, regardless of gender.”
Amanda Wagner ’14 credits Bentley’s Women's Center for fostering leadership and communication skills that helped her navigate the government. She was an intern at the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and used her connections and experience to leverage a second internship at a political consulting firm before landing a full-time job at major health-care consulting company. Her most recent post is associate marketing proposal writer at Verisk Health.
“I prepared for and ran meetings and events, and communicated with board members on their progress,” she recalls of her weekly responsibilities at the CWB. “It has helped me in the consulting world, since I lead a majority of meetings with clients and need to make sure that tasks are being completed in a timely manner. It also gave me an overall confidence boost.”
Gender aside, DeLeo cites a few skills that fit the bill for working in a government-related job:
Strong work ethic: Contrary to popular belief, government employees often work incredibly long hours.
Strong communication skills: Policy scholars have established the critical importance language and communication skills play in the policy arena. In any given policy debate, the types of problem frames and definitions accepted will have an enormous impact on the types of government policies created. The ability to effectively and clearly communicate these ideas will greatly enhance the likelihood of success in the public sector.
Excellent analytical skills: Government problems are inherently complex, often involving multiple stakeholders and requiring action in the face of imperfect (and politically contested) information. The ability to critically think about and solve these problems can pay significant professional dividends in the public sector. In this regard, government work is very similar to private sector work.
Strong moral code: Most importantly, government work has an enormous impact on people’s lives, a responsibility that should not be taken lightly.
“Our goal is to offer curriculum that includes both business and liberal arts to help students develop communication and analytical skills, and a sense of social responsibility,” says Juliet Gainsborough, associate dean of arts and sciences at Bentley. “In many ways, work in the public sector requires the same skills that work in the private sector does, but with the addition of social purpose, knowledge and engagement, as well as issue-specific knowledge.”
As for the slight uptick in women’s participation in the public sector (there’s still a long way to go), DeLeo says women are finally being allowed to access historically male-dominated arenas of power.
“I don’t believe their value is somehow derived from the fact that they differ from men,” he says. “Instead, it is derived from the fact that they are just as capable of performing the types of jobs once assumed to be reserved for men.”
Kristen L. Walsh is a freelance writer.