In honor of National Women’s History Month, panelists as part of the “Women in Public Service” panel spoke about their career paths as female leaders working in the political sphere, pivotal changes in their lives and career advice.

Erin Byrnes, lead for democratic engagement at the Ginsberg Center, spoke about the intended event impact and the importance of conversations of this nature.

“Our democratic engagement work is focused on multiple different facets, one of which is really encouraging our students to see themselves in a body of elected officials – people who are doing important work behind the scenes,” Byrnes said. “We are in the midst of a national conversation about what women are doing, how they’re treated and how they deserve to be treated. The more we can bring unique voices and experiences to the table and highlight them, that’s better for all of us as a community.”

Panelists discussed challenges they faced while trying to break into the industry. Ghida Dagher, director of Government Partnerships and Community Affairs at United Way for Southeastern Michigan, discussed how she had to make a distinct effort to be heard in political spaces.

“I had a realization that I had to be twice as loud, twice as vocal as everyone else in the room,” Dagher said. “Quite often I’m the youngest person in the room … and because of the nature of our work, I’m usually the only woman in the room. I have to think about everything – kind of absorb, seek out the players and understand what’s happening, and then vocalize.”

She continued by speaking on how she felt women were held to a different standard than most men in politics, responding to a comment another panelist made about how female politicians should “never stand by the bar, and be seen with a drink in hand.”

“I think there are a lot of social norms, I would call them, that are acceptable for men and are not acceptable for women in this space,” she said. “Particularly in this space, I feel like the women are under a microscope, every movement, if you’re a candidate, what you wear is open for criticism.”

University Regent Andrea Fischer Newman, R, agreed with the statement, adding she felt the #MeToo movement was pivotal in giving women an opportunity to speak up about the pervasive issue of sexual assault and harassment. 

“I wish it was happening when I was younger, 10 years ago,” Newman said. “Because you must call it out, you can do it nicely, but you must call it out. The #MeToo campaign has given women everywhere the wake-up they needed to say something. When you get out there, most of you aren’t out there yet, there’s definitely a difference in how women are treated by an older generation. This campaign really brought a whole new level to this issue and we can’t let it go away, it’s too important.”

Public Policy student Erica Muñoz-Rumsey, who is also in the School of Public Health, spoke of how she loved the diversity of the panel and hearing about these women’s experiences.

“I was excited to see a panel where we hear some different perspectives from people in different kinds of public service,” Muñoz-Rumsey said. “I thought they brought a lot of stories that I hadn’t heard before to the table. They had different experiences and weren’t afraid to disagree with each other.”

Saskia DeVries, a graduate student in the School of Information and Ford School of Public Policy, agreed, emphasizing the honest approach panelists embodied.

“It was really cool to hear a candid conversation between a bunch of women who made the decision to enter public service at different points in their lives,” DeVries said. “I appreciated the candor and the stories that people shared. I think it’s important that when we have these conversations that inspire women to enter public service that we are honest about the challenges too … I want to go in knowing what to expect and how to prepare for that.”

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