Beyond Representation: Exploring the Credibility Gap in Public Service

She Should Run, a non-partisan organization working to funnel more women into politics, has launched a campaign for political parity—with a goal of women comprising 50 percent of U.S. elected offices by 2030. Donald Trump’s presidential election has prompted a surge of feminist resistance and a commitment to gender equality in politics—and a 1,000 percent increase in women interested in running for office.

More women voting on our legislation is critical—but what about the power of us women already working in politics?

Cody Williams / Creative Commons

We civil servants, we pencil pushers working in the municipal, state and federal government—we are the ones who write, finance and implement every single one of your local, state and federal policies and budgets. We can make progress and change very difficult for our elected leaders, as Trump has found out from James Comey and Sally Yates. 

And when we are women, we face a unique challenge: a credibility barrier.

Women are already 43 percent of public servants, yet 68 percent of us are the lowest levels of the civil service. While the media is interested in Ivanka Trump for political reasons, most women in unelected government jobs are rarely heard in policy debates despite our expertise. We don’t have the platform and unearned credibility with government officials and politicians that Ivanka enjoys—or the $74 million and glossy hair. We have mom hair and wrinkles. We wear sneakers to work and carry our lunches in cloth shopping bags. We are exhausted from years of repeating our knowledge over and over again to the men we work with and for, hoping to be heard before we turn shrill or apathetic or decide to simply stay home.

Interruption is one way men in the public service damage women’s credibility in politics. Elected officials like Kamala Harris know this all too well. And just this year, a study by Northwestern Law School found that male Supreme Court justices interrupt female justices three times more than each other. “Yet even though Supreme Court justices are some of the most powerful individuals in the country,” the authors wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “justices find themselves consistently interrupted not only by their male colleagues but also by their subordinates: the male advocates who are attempting to persuade them.” If these top-ranking women in public service still fight to be heard by their male peers, then you can imagine the experience of us lower-ranked plebes.

But being interrupted is just one example of the extra work and energy women must exert to influence outcomes in the public service. I have spent too much time trying to communicate with male colleagues about basic elements of their jobs. Over the years, I frequently found myself playing PA to a number of male colleagues despite being equal partners on a committee or in a program. Public services and protections are critical for our most underrepresented citizens—often vulnerable women and children. I sent texts to a police inspector to remind him of meetings, made reminder phone calls to the town manager’s clerical staff, tracked down the housing director before work and prepped health officials in advance of meetings. I have never had to brief my female colleagues to ensure they are ready for a meeting, presentation or deadline.

Since public employees are banned from political activity and communication with the press, constituents or elected officials about internal operations, our experiences have a limited audience. One of the few books on the subject is Women and Public Service: Barriers, Challenges and Opportunities, published in 2014 and authored by Mohamad Alkadry and Leslie Tower. Their findings rather depressingly mirror my personal experience: They argue that the gender inequality in the public sector is a good research example of the cultural barriers facing women because female civil servants are there in equal numbers to start with. The sexism we face is not a pipelines issue, as in the legislature.

The segregation of women to clerical and administrative grades can’t be ignored when identifying causes of gender inequality. In looking at all federal government employees by level, Alkadry and Landry found women represented half the overall workforce but only 30 percent of the Senior Executive Service level. Women consistently outnumber men in positions below GS10, while men outnumber women consistently in positions above GS10. Women also face more barriers to career advancement—and when they do reach the same official level as men, they have less authority, smaller budgets and fewer staff.

Many factors influence our credibility—experience, knowledge and association among them—and often they should. Credibility is earned. Credibility is a survival tool. We all need it to be fairly represented in our legal, economic and political systems. But the notion of credibility isn’t immune from biases stemming from race, gender and class.

I am sick of imagining the impact women could make on our political system if they didn’t spend so much time and energy fighting to be heard. If privileged and educated women like me struggle to have a credible voice, how far are we from real gender equality? My experience in public service, here and abroad, makes me wonder whether equal representation will afford women equal credibility and authority in law-making.

Colleen Hennessy is a social policy researcher and writer. She previously authored a chapter in “A Living Countryside: The Politics of Sustainable Development.” She currently manages a HUD-funded municipal housing program. You can read more at colleenhennessy.com and find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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