On Monday evening, about 50 students attended a fireside chat hosted by Lean In at University of Michigan in the Ross School of Business. The event discussed women in politics, and panelists included local Michigan state representatives as well as politically active campus leaders.
The event began with each panelist talking about her own background. Michigan state Rep. Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, discussed the inspiration she gets from politics. She talked about the power and impact the legislature has on people’s lives. Despite her background in chemical engineering, Warren said her role in politics started when she realized her passion for problem-solving and building coalitions.
Warren wasn’t the only panelist to begin her career outside of the field of politics. Michigan state Rep. Donna Lasinski, D-Ann Arbor, discussed her career in business after graduating from the Business School.
Lasinski said her interest in politics came directly from her personal life and experiences as a mother. Her children attended a Title 1 school, meaning the school receives additional funds due to large concentrations of low-income students in need of supplemental aid in order to meet educational goals. Lasinski said she recognized the challenges that come from learning in such an environment, where opportunities and resources were scarce. She began her professional (political) career in padvocating for low-income students on the school board, which ultimately led her to the legislature.
“If you see a problem in your community, complaining is not your job,” Lasinski said. “Your job is to step forward and offer a political solution.”
For others, it was their environment which inspired them. LSA junior, Kate Westa, who is the co-president of WeListen, a student organization on campus focused on fostering conversations between political parties, cited her experience growing up with a family member in the Air Force. Westa said she had an opportunity to meet with former President George H.W. Bush and explained it was a pivotal moment in her life.
“I remember it so clearly,” Westa said. “He seemed to genuinely care about the country and his dedication to being a public servant. Everything since then has been in the political realm.”
According to Warren, her experience as the only female Democrat in the Michigan Senate for four years has made her realize female perspectives are essential.
“We tend to fight amongst each other for one seat at the table, but we need to stop fighting for that one seat and start demanding the five spots at the table that we deserve,” Warren said. “Women’s voices at the table change conversations.”
Other panelists said it is often difficult to thrive in male-dominated fields. Warren said she was told repeatedly she was too young to run for office when her male rival was six months younger than her. Lasinski said she felt unable to wear a dress at her former job at DTE Energy because men would look up her skirt.
According to Lasinski, strong male allies can be beneficial but can also fall short of expectations.
“As I look across right now sometimes in the political world, you’ll see that the man has been a very strong ally for the woman until he feels that it is his turn,” Lasinski said.
According to Lasinski, such microaggressions are harder to call out because they are more subtle and difficult to read directly. She said that’s why it’s necessary to have more women in positions of power.
Lasinski also said having women in positions of power in the government can change how bills are passed and addressed, especially bills which impact women.
“Having women in power is tremendous,” Lasinski said. “There are questions answered without being asked, issues brought up and recognized without it happening at the ninth hour.”
Warren agreed having everyone at the table would allow for broader and better legislation. She also pointed out the problem with labeling certain issues “women’s issues,” when oftentimes these issues are universal. She questioned what women’s issues exactly are and expressed her unwillingness to be pigeonholed.
“Every issue we deal with are all ‘women’s issues,’” Warren said. “I don’t ever want to be put into a box where I’m the only person who deals with this small subsection that you think are ‘women’s issues.’”
LSA sophomore Emily Baron said to The Daily after the event that she attended the fireside chat because she wanted to be exposed to a variety of ideas.
“I like to hear different people’s perspective,” Baron said. “I like to be an active listener; hearing the panelists is really inspiring even if it’s not something I’m directly interested in.”
LSA junior Sarah Stone, one of the organizers of the panel, explained the inspiration behind the event. Stone explained the event was supposed to address the broader conversation of female empowerment.
“As somebody who is not in the political field or track, learning the skills that women in high power fields experience and seeing how Rebekah (Warren) was a chemical engineer and completely changed her path to pursue her passion and take a stand and have become such an influential person; that’s something to take away,” Stone said.