Several prominent state female political leaders visited the Ford School of Public Policy on Thursday to discuss women’s experiences running for elected office.
The event drew about 50 attendees, mostly female, and was hosted by Graduate Career Services and Women and Gender in Public Policy.
U.S. Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D–Mich.) introduced the panel, which consisted of Gretchen Whitmer, former Michigan Senate minority leader; Regent Kathy White (D), chair of the University’s Board of Regents; state Rep. Gretchen Driskell (D–Saline); and state Rep. Stephanie Chang (D–Detroit). Chang participated via conference call and the rest attended in person.
Before the start of the panel, Public Policy Dean Susan Collins noted that each of the panelists have a connection the Public Policy School, either as students, guest lecturers or representatives of the University.
In her introduction, Dingell encouraged women to run for office because of the different viewpoints she said they bring to the table.
“Women bring a different perspective to the public policy arena,” Dingell said. “Women are people who have to balance more balls than men. The younger generation is doing more of this than some of my generation.”
Referencing a book focused on the ethics of kindness that she said influenced her in college, Dingell said she felt “care” was what women brought to public policy, and that women are better at bringing people with differing viewpoints together.
Chang also noted the different approaches that women bring to the legislature.
She said women tend to be more collaborative as leaders, and added that women tend to understand policies affecting families, women and children better than their male colleagues.
“There have been studies and articles that show women tend to be more collaborative leaders, to be very thorough, to work with people and solve problems, and those are things that women tend to do on a day-to-day basis,” Chang said. “Ultimately the goal is not just to get more people into office, but one of the results of that is better policy — better policy making especially for families, for children, for women.”
White said for many of the positions she has held, she was the first Black female to assume that role. She echoed Chang’s sentiments on the importance of increased representation in government roles.
“Men have the same interest as women do — we want to have representative government that represents all,” White said. “It’s just a better way to have great democracy: by not excluding 50 percent of the population.”
Whitmer agreed, emphasizing the importance of diversity in the legislature.
“The beauty of our system is it is diverse, and it works best when all voices are heard,” Whitmer said. “You can be a farmer or a pharmacist in the legislature, and (that) works better when we have many different voices that are part of the debate.”
Questions from the audience were taken throughout the event. Attendees asked what made each woman want to run for office, what advice the panelists would give for women interested in running for office and what they wished someone would have told them when they were starting their career.
The panelists also discussed their experiences campaigning and in elected office, encouraging interested students to follow in their footsteps. Many of the panelists said they didn’t think they would ever run for office and had to be pushed by their friends and mentors to do so, or ran only after they saw an issue not being addressed.
Whitmer noted that when she entered Michigan’s state Senate the ratio between men and women was at its historic height — 12 women to 38 men — which she called both an accomplishment, but also a sign that there was still a ways to go. The current ratio is at four women to 46 men.
“In the last session, there were more men named John in the Michigan Senate than women,” Whitmer said. “It’s really important that our voices are heard. I’ve said it once and have repeated many times: if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
Dingell said she thought the current low representation stemmed equally from gender as from disinterest and distrust in government in this generation.
“I’m actually going to say: I don’t think this is a gender issue,” Dingell said. “I think we’ve got a problem in this country that people feel disconnected from the government. Voting is at an all time low, people don’t think that they matter and that they can make a difference, and we need to get people engaged.”