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Women in Politics: Policy Portfolio Assumptions

A while back, Ailanthus-Altissima wrote about subfield assumptions in academia. It struck a nerve with me because I see a lot of this assumed (and actual) specialization in government and politics as well.

The good news for little girls growing up today is that there are far more women in politics than there were when I was five and announced to my grandmother that I was going to be president. There’s certainly not the same kind of parity in terms of women holding elected office here in the U.S. as there is in, say, Sweden, but there are more than there used to be. Women hold (or have held) offices like secretary of state and speaker of the House. More importantly, a generation of women like me are starting to fill the ranks of workers behind-the-scenes or in related fields, as communications directors, legislative aides, lobbyists, and the like.

The bad news is that women tend to be pigeon-holed to certain tasks and portfolio areas within government, politics, and those agencies and offices that interact with government. (I’m thinking of community-focused nonprofits and lobbyists for various types of organizations and businesses, mostly.) In my experience,* not only are women less likely to get the top jobs like chief of staff or statewide/national directorship, they also tend to cluster in certain policy areas.

To start off, I have two quick anecdotes.

Not long ago, I went to an informational meeting about phasing in provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The room was filled with women. Some were health care workers, or representatives from the nurses’ unions. Most were aides to elected officials like me. A couple of elected representatives showed up in person, both of them women. There were probably only a handful of men present in a room of about 45 people.

Later that same week, I attended a meeting of the regional transportation council. One council member and I were the only two women in a room full of council members, state and local employees, business leaders who would be affected by the proposed plans under discussion, and concerned citizens from block clubs and other community organizations.

So what do these things mean? Well, first of all, they’re illustrative of a larger trend I’ve noticed over the past few years working for Bossman. Whether through preference or assignment, women tend to be much more prevalent working in areas like health care, education,** the arts, and other community-focused, immediate-need or “touchy-feely” types of services. Transportation, economic development, and building and construction fields tend to be more male dominated. Of course that’s not the full scope of what government does, and it doesn’t even breach the surface of politics side of things. But just looking around a room, it’s pretty clear to see what the perception is of “male” and “female” portfolio areas within the broader spectrum of working for government.

Now, in a lot of cases, women choose these specializations for themselves. I know that health care is my portfolio because it’s something that I care a lot about. The fact that many other women also care about the same issues most likely accounts for the demographics of that first meeting I mentioned. But I think that there’s also a lot of subtle pressure happening as well. If you want to know the difference between a traffic circle and a roundabout, I’m Bossman’s gal for that. But I do sometimes feel talked down to or as if I’m given the side-eye by the men who run those transportation meetings. It is frustrating to realize that it’s taken me more than two years to be taken seriously by the leaders of the major economic development project in the region, when the new guy in someone else’s office was swept in without much more than a handshake.

What is my point here? Honestly, there’s not much of one. But when we’re touting the accomplishment of having more women in politics or government, we should also reflect on WHERE they’re serving as well. We still have a long way to go for real equality underneath the surface.

*I don’t have hard data on this, although I suspect it might be out there somewhere. It’s much easier to count the faces of women holding elected office than it is the myriad stuff that happens behind the scenes. This commentary is based on my own experiences, not an actual census of ladies in service to the government.
**Interestingly enough, although there are a lot of women in the education non-profits and advocacy groups, the higher positions within the formal education system, like superintendents, tend to be filled by men. And while women play a huge advocacy role in health care, the top tier of leaders in health care organizations again tend to be men.

Image courtesy the City University of New York

By BaseballChica03

Political hack. Word nerd. Stays crispy in milk. Oxford Comma user. Blogger since 2001.

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