Category: Freelance writing

Beyond Representation: Exploring the Credibility Gap in Public Service

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

This article appeared in on August 8, 2017.

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?

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 whether equal representation will afford women equal credibility and authority in law-making.equal representation will afford women equal credibility and authority in law-making.

Thank you to @theOpEdProject for inspiration and editing advice!


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Is it Time for Feminists to Lean In or Get Out of the Catholic Church?

Blessed Virgin MaryI told my dad it was creepy that we had to kneel in front of an old guy in a robe at mass when I was 10 or 11. I weaseled out of my confirmation at 15 and thought I was skipping into a sacrament free future as a young modern feminist. Yet years later I found myself having ‘words’ with the avid church lady in Galway who was instructing a few unconfirmed foreigners how to be good Catholic wives. I exaggerate – she was leading a confirmation prep class that I had to attend in order to receive confirmation at St. John’s in Galway so I could marry my Irish fiance in the Church but I felt like I was prostrating myself again in a front of a man in a robe.

Fast forward through a Master’s degree, my wedding, funerals, jobs, two baptisms, a move back to the US and here I am again contemplating yet another Catholic ritual. The sick irony of the Irish government hosting a Citizen’s Assembly on the 8th amendment while making no moves to open a criminal investigation into the hundreds of human remains found at the site of the former Bon Secours Tuam ‘home’ for mothers and children makes me wonder why the hell I am considering signing my son up to make his First Communion next year. Why the hell, am I a feminist who does not believe in a literal reading of the bible, still a Catholic at all?

Many Irish feminists and journalists have the answer for me. I can’t be a feminist and a Catholic and I am choosing the easy path by continuing to participate in a corrupt organization’s rituals. According to Donald Clarke’s opinion piece reprinted by The Irish Times in relation to the question of the church’s rituals, I shouldn’t participate in rituals, such as First Communion, if I don’t approve of the church.  This might be the simplest solution to my dilemma but who does it help and if it was that simple to me I would have already expunged the Roman Catholic from my identity. As I struggle to answer this question for my own sake (sorry, I don’t care about your opinion about my feminism or my Catholicism) three answers emerge.

Firstly, I like rituals because they connect me to the generations of my family before me and to communities all over the world in a way that creating my own brand of religious rituals wouldn’t do for me or my children.

Secondly, I have enough respect for the victims of the church’s abuse who are still Catholics and still participate in the rituals to consider their faith might not be misplaced.

Finally, feeling like I need to take individual responsibility for the wrongs of the Catholic church perpetuates the silent guilt created by the Catholic power structures in Ireland and Irish-America that allowed communities to stay behind their curtains while not so secret abuse, imprisonment and shaming went on in parishes everywhere.

Why are families urged to take their child out of communion prep or choose a rare non-denominational school rather than demand the crucifix and communion get out of their state-funded schools? The victims of abuse have overcome enormous physical and psychological obstacles to confront the power of bishops, cardinals, parish priests, nuns and the Vatican as a whole and what have we done about it collectively as Catholics to support them? Why in 2014 did Catherine Corless, an amateur historian, have to single-handedly research and publicize the death and secret burial of hundreds of babies in what were public institutions in communities all over Ireland?

The feminist and community development professional in me can’t quite just walk away.  I continue to vote even when I don’t ‘approve’ of the major political parties in Ireland or America. Feminists don’t approve of Donald Trump but they haven’t all left the political arena. Women have done the opposite and are flooding political institutions and decision-making structures in the attempt to collectively change politics. The silent treatment is a particularly Irish solution to conflict. I hate the silent treatment. The person you are ignoring doesn’t know why you are ignoring them and you don’t get the satisfaction of being angry. Staying home on Sunday morning is just like the silent treatment. This might prove to be the best option for me but I would rather be part of an Irish-led collective movement to remove the church and their sexist and controlling leaders from social policy in Ireland and the US.   I would rather see Catholics in Ireland and America throw off the guilt and silence created by the church and demand their rightful role as members in creating church policy. The public campaign to repeal the 8th amendment in Ireland is the first step to eradicating the smug and sanctimonious moral high ground from Irish social policy.

The Irish Snow

I grew up in Maine, the northernmost state on the east coast of the United States. Maine is beautiful…beautiful if you like winter for 6 months of the year. Snow can begin in early November and last through March or early April. This means Mainers move a lot snow. Between 50 and 100 inches per year to be exact. The annual snowfall varies depending on the region. The coastal areas are lower and manageable but the northern and interior regions are buried for 6 months of the year.

Growing up in Maine sometimes leaves you with a love of flannel, camouflage everything, stockpiling and L.L Bean boots but it always leaves with you with the ability to plow through snow (pun intended). While I lived in Ireland for 10 years I couldn’t help but notice the kafuffle caused by ice every winter.

Yes, we have the cars, clothes and equipment for it but here are a few transferrable skills from a Mainer to help the Irish deal with ice and snow that is upon Ireland now.
Also, please stop posting pictures while driving over the Connors Pass in a blizzard. Just stop driving over the Connors Pass in a blizzard.

Black Ice is Not Everywhere
Yes, the roads are plowed here and we have private and public plow crews working through the night (most people pay for the plows to clear their rural roads and driveways) but Maine is the size of Ireland and it’s impossible to keep the roads clear when the snow is falling fast. Unless it’s a big storm, life goes on so you are expected to get to work and school. This means lots of driving on slippery roads in bad visibility.
I’m not sure where Kerry drivers got the idea that black ice was lurking around every corner ready to jump out and attack them but it seemed to be a very common fear. You will be fine if you go slow enough. The trick to driving in snow and ice is not a trick at all. Go slow enough to ensure that you don’t need your brakes to slow down.
You will inevitably skid and slip in snow and ice but if you are going slow enough, you can correct or ride it out without slamming on the brakes and turning into a spin and careening into another car or off the road. That being said, you can’t control other speed demons who are going to smash into you so if you are very nervous only drive in emergencies.

The Cold Kills
Americans wear ugly and practical clothes like our famous clunky white sneakers. Mainers dress worse than the average American. Carhartts, a flannel shirt and a down vest passes for a tuxedo here. There’s an old joke that goes “What’s the difference between a Maine black bear and a Maine women?” “A flannel shirt.”

The Mainer in me was baffled by the lack of appropriate outerwear in Ireland. How do you not even wear rain coats? I would shudder at the sight of drenched young women running around in high-heels and cotton fashion jackets riding up their backs and exposing wet skin.

Extreme and prolonged cold is no joke and it kills hundreds of elderly people in the U.S. each year. Get prepared and cover your ears, head, fingers and toes.

Fuel poverty is also a serious issue here and if you run out of oil, things can get seriously dangerous fast so if you know someone at risk, take them to your house before a storm or ensure they have enough fuel to last for days.
Falling is another cause of broken bones all winter so make sure elderly neighbors and families don’t have to go out for fuel or food and that you clear roads, steps and walkways for them. Sand and grit is often available for free from councils (or at the beach) and all you need is a bucketful to keep around.

Stop Waiting for the Council                                                                                                               My son was born in December of 2009 in the middle of a cold icy snap in Kerry. I made a treacherous trip to my GP with him when he was a few days old. None of the sidewalks were clear in Tralee at 11 o’clock in the morning. There were lots of complaints about the Council. What there wasn’t? Lots of people out clearing roads and footpaths or spreading sand.

Who does this in Maine? We do.

Shovel steps, clear the driveway (plows bury footpaths and walkways), spread sand and salt, repeat. This is a never-ending cycle of drudgery but there is no magic snow removal fairy and the cities and towns keep the main roads cleared. The rest is up to you. Residential and commercial properties clear the sidewalks and access routes around their buildings. Neighbors shovel driveways of those who can’t do it themselves or those who aren’t home. Ice and snow are particularly dangerous for anyone with mobility or balance issues so be kind and clear the whole footpath up and down the road if you are able-bodied.

Those Ice Things for Your Shoes are a Waste of Time
On a related note, don’t buy those crampon things they sell at Aldi and Lidl to slip over your regular shoes. They are a gimmick and are not going to help you. Wear flat boots and wool socks and walk slow. Help pregnant women, people with disabilities and the elderly get from the car to the wherever they are going. Ugg-style boots are not outdoor boots. They are extremely slippery and have caused me to wipeout on just wet tiles in the town square.

For the Love of God, Stop Pouring Boiling Water on your Windscreen!
I know you love to boil the kettle and this method of ice removal seems logical. My family arrived that Christmas of 2009 and still talk about the rental car guy running out the car park in Shannon with a boiled kettle to ‘clear the wind screen’. Hot water will indeed melt ice but you know what else it will do? Crack your windscreen. The temperature change between the boiling water and the ice can crack your windscreen. That’s an expensive (and unnecessary) gamble. Spend an extra 10 minutes. Get bundled up, go out and turn your car on and let it heat up with the defrost on high. Wait in the house. If you have inches of snow on your car, use a sweeping brush to clear the car roof and windows off. The snow flies off while driving and creates visibility issues for other drivers. An old credit card works like an ice scraper if you are stuck.

I lived in Ireland for ten years and every winter there was some ice and lots of talk about no one had the right gear. Just buy an ice scraper and put it in your car when winter comes. They cost about $10 and are in hardware stores. The really good ones have a brush on the end. Simple Maine pleasures.