Talking about Women and Civic Participation

Friday, July 25th, 2014

By Monika Shepard & Christina Crawley

Earlier this week, we hosted a conversation at the OpenGov Hub with a panel of experts, leaders and advocates on their respective experiences and work on women and civic participation and how environmental, economic and cultural norms affect the gender balance, both in the United States and abroad.  

The session was introduced and moderated by Nathaniel Heller, Executive Director at Global Integrity, who spoke about the OpenGov Hub’s interest in playing host and being involved in future discussions around the intersection of women, technology, and politics.  The floor was then given to the panel, which contributed very unique perspectives and approaches to the issue of greater gender equality within the civic space for women. The panel included the following speakers:

A key topic raised during the discussion was that the issue should be treated as a gender issue rather than a women’s issue. In order to drive change, we must look at both sides of the coin and include men, as well as members of the LGBT community, in the conversation. If framed as a women’s issue, men may feel excluded and choose not to be present in shaping the solution. That said, in some environments it is also important to have seperate safe spaces for women to share their ideas freely.

Another key theme from the conversation, especially in the case of women in developing countries, was that outsiders should not assume women want help or want to be engaged in the political process nationally or locally. If basic survival needs are not met, in the context of war-torn countries for example, it might be the case that women are focused on ensuring they and their families are first taken care of, and being engaged doesn’t fall high on their list. In some cases, competition between women can be a challenge as well, in that making sure one’s family and personal situation may outway the camaraderie of women who support one another.

Furthermore, we need to build up the confidence of women, starting at an early age, to understand that they can be leaders in civic activities. According to Clare Bresnahan from She Should Run, one in four girls below the age of 18 in the USA don’t believe they have what it takes to be a leader.  If only 25% of girls think they can be leaders, how can the rest of the population help support these girls as they grow up to be women in leadership roles? The pipeline of mentorship and funding also need to be there to assist in creating the women leaders of tomorrow. Currently it takes over $200,000 to run for a local election in the state of Maryland. Not an easy task, especially without the proper training or support to understand how to raise funding from small donors. Politics and "active" civic engagement take time and a lot of money, a gap that continues to grow.

Based on this conversation, we know there is a lot to follow up on. We encourage anyone interested in the topic, and would like to work with use to co-host another discussion, to contact us at info[at]opengovhub.org. A particular request goes out to journalists who are writing about, describing, and depicting women’s engagement in the US and abroad.

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