Needed: More women in political and civic leadership - Women's Foundation California

Judy Patrick, San Jose Mercury News, December 5, 2013—By unleashing women's political leadership at all levels, we can transform not just women's lives but our society as a whole.

I've seen firsthand the enormous difference women make when given the opportunity to be at the decision-making table, helping shape the laws and policies that govern our lives.

Ten years ago, we started a program called the Women's Policy Institute to put female leaders from low-income communities around the state at the center of the legislative process. We wanted to see what could happen when these women were given the information, access and hands-on experience they need to craft and advocate for public policy.

Since then, nearly 300 women from around California have gone through the program, helping achieve 20 legislative victories that strengthen our families, our communities and our state.

One example is the California Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, which protects a vital workforce that has labored without equal labor protections for decades. This bill was twice vetoed — first by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, then by Gov. Jerry Brown. But well-trained advocates, many of them domestic workers as well as graduates of our Women's Policy Institute, refused to back down.

As a result of their visionary leadership and the support they galvanized from across the state, more than 100,000 low-income women in California now have the right to overtime pay when they work longer hours.

Women's Policy Institute fellows also have helped pass laws that protect consumers from toxic chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products, and ensure that families can take advantage of new and lifesaving health care coverage options.

After graduation, fellows continue to make a difference in their organizations and their communities. In addition to training others in how to shape public policy, they have the confidence and know-how to take on political leadership roles, such as serving on state commissions.

Women's political leadership results in policies that are better for all of us. Michelle Swers, author of “The Difference Women Make: The Policy Impact of Women in Congress,” found that female legislators are more likely to write, shepherd and vote for legislation that pertains to welfare, health care, education and gender equity.

Or consider the important role that female senators played in ending the partisan gridlock that shut down our government, bringing to the table a bipartisan and collaborative spirit and helping shape a negotiated settlement.

Yet women often are shut out of the legislative process, both as policy makers and as policy influencers. Although we make up more than half of the population, women only hold 98 of 535 seats in Congress — or just 18 percent. In California, women make up only 26 percent of the Legislature.

A report released in October by the World Economic Forum puts the U.S. behind 22 other countries on gender equity, mainly due to the poor scores the country receives on political leadership of women. That's bad news for our country. When women's voices are excluded from policymaking, we all lose out.

We desperately need women to run for — and get elected to — office at the local, state and federal levels. We also need women serving as appointed officials. We need women speaking up with their votes. And we need women actively engaged in policymaking as advocates.

Only when women are involved in all aspects of policymaking can our communities truly thrive.

Judy Patrick is president and CEO of the Women's Foundation of California. She wrote this for this newspaper.

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