Category: 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!


When will the Irish media stop reporting on rapists as ‘doting fathers’?

You would never have suspected

The Irish Independent article published on Saturday March 25th  titled “You would never have suspected anything about his past’” was difficult to read.  The nature and scale of the sexual attacks carried out by Michael Marville against seven siblings is distressing.  But I have to admit the articles insistent coverage that the man’s attacks were so out of place in the village where he lived and married also made for difficult reading.  I am baffled by the Irish media’s continued coverage of sexual criminals and abusers as ‘normal’ and quiet members of the community as if this is unusual.

When will the Irish media realize being ‘quiet’ is exactly how sexual abusers and rapists across communities survive and keep their victims living in secret shame?

RTE loves to interview the parish priest so he can express horror and assure viewers that there were no signs and the village is a ‘quiet place’. ‘They keep to themselves’ is apparently both documented method for proving innocence and for avoiding being a victim of sexual crime.

This article not only references the church attendance of the rapist’s family but brings out the GAA club, and his in-laws ‘respected’ standing in the community. These are all completely irrelevant facts and perpetuate the notion that sexual violence is obvious and attackers are skulking around the inner-city with guns and knives ready to pounce on women and children on a dark street.

“It’s a quiet area, you’d never expect something like this to happen here,” is the recurrent theme in these articles.  I completely understand the sentiment as a neighbor or friend but does this mean it is part of the news of crime reporting?

Where do we expect these crimes to happen? Where is it less shocking? Ballymun? If any community should understand the conditions that allow sexual abuse to go undetected for long periods of time, it should be rural Catholica Ireland. When will the Irish media stop perpetuating the dangerous myth that the priest and men of authority should be the mouthpieces of the community and your church attendance and GAA membership predicts your trustworthiness with children?

I write because…

I love precision.I write because it makes me listen to my own thoughts. I write to put an end to ruminating, circling, bouncing thoughts. I love words because they can represent huge worldly ideas in one small sentence. I write because sometimes I prefer to read what you have to say than listen to your voice. I write because I get sick of my own voice. I write to put my own life in perspective.

I write to put nebulous unproductive worries or anxieties into surmountable steps. I write to make plans. I write to communicate plans to other people. I write to share ideas. I write to prove my idea, plans or projects are sound. I write because its sometimes too easy to speak.

I write to convince people of my ideas. I write to help other people clarify their ideas and opinions. I write to help organizations put their mission and projects into perspective. I write to help groups stop talking in circles. I write because eventually the meeting has to end.

In Pursuit of Christmas

“Pat, come-in, come-in, do you read me?” Ryan asked into his radio. ”Silver Transit van backing up into the woods at the Torc car park”, he continued in a whisper. “Yes, the Torc waterfall car park. It’s 11 pm the night before Christmas Eve, I don’t think it’s tourists.”

He crept behind a tree and continued, “Not sure how many there are yet. Ok, the van’s parked but lights are still on. One suspect out, two, three…I think there’s three men. They’ve gone around to the back and opened the doors. Are you on your way? Did you call it into the station?” Ryan asked.

He was about 100 yards away from the van. The moon was covered in thick clouds and a fine mist shimmered in front of the van’s front beams. Good thing he’d bought those night vision goggles. Deirdre was bitter that he had spent €200 of their money before Christmas. There was no way those plastic ones the department bought would have cut it tonight. Not in these conditions.
He squatted and rested his shoulder against an oak trunk and put the radio to his ear again. They should really have ear pieces too. He didn’t fancy ending up in the back of a transit trundling to Tralee, or worse, Limerick if these guys heard him. €200 wouldn’t seem so important if he ended up bashed and hanging over Ladies’ View.

Ryan shook his head while listening through the static. He depressed the talk button and shouted, “What, they’re not sending anyone?” He continued in a whisper “I don’t care what’s going on outside the night club. This is supposed to be a priority. How long will you be? Ah Pat…. No, having a pint in the Lake House bar does not count as patrolling. Forget it. I’m on my own. Over and out.”
Ryan unclipped his official uniform cap from his belt and pulled it on. He shoved the silent radio into his belt, pulled out his flashlight and took a deep breath. He headed towards the van. Seconds into his march, a roar smashed the night’s silence and bounced around the trees. A chainsaw!
He broke into a run but as he neared the van the roar was replaced by the sounds of crashing and crunching. As he neared the van he saw three shapes emerge from the dark dragging two full holly trees.
“Stop! Killarney Park Ranger. You are breaking the law. Put down the holly!! “He shouted towards the men. They hesitated long enough for Ryan to hear laughing before throwing the trees into the back of the van. Slam. Two more slams and the van took off into the road as Ryan reached the clearing.
“Fa la la la la, la la la la” his phone trilled over his heaving breathing.
“God damn, what?” he barked.
“Hi honey, just me. I’m here at Niamh’s house and everyone is very intrigued by your special patrol. Is it very exciting tonight?” Deirdre giggled above tinkling glasses and music.
“Special and secret, Dee. It’s a secret patrol.” He crouched down and picked up a broken holly twig.
“Sure it’s just Niamh and few others. Anyway let me finish. She was saying how fabulous the holly looked on her neighbour’s front door but she forgot to get some in town. She was delighted when I said you could bring her back a nice big bunch tonight. You don’t mind do you, ‘tis the season and all that…Honey? Ryan? Are you there? Why are you panting?”

My two winters

Waves breaking into the bay
Wind at Scraggane Waves breaking into the bay

The winter in Maine is bitter, exhausting and endless. I don’t miss having to keep every inch of skin covered for fear of frostbite or shoveling five feet of snow twice a day to get out the door. I don’t miss parking bans and brown slush in March. I am dreading getting used to six months of cold again and all the gear and equipment required to survive it, but I will not miss the wind in the Maharees. It blows for weeks at a time and blows consistently at 80 km/hour with gusts over 100 regularly. This isn’t a storm; life goes on as normal. We don’t lose power very often and there isn’t much damage to property because of the landscape but the wind has a powerful effect on the people in a similar way to in Maine. Many summer people or ‘tourists’ with holiday homes intend to stay year round or retire here but the common refrain is “Let’s see how they like it in February” or “We’ll see if they last the winter.” – In many cases they don’t. It’s hard to capture the wind’s strength in a picture or video so I tried to describe its effect in words.

The wind, the wind, the wind
The relentless battering, shaking, creaking, banging, scraping, howling and screeching makes my feet itch by January.
“It ‘s a southerly, no it’s a northerly which is worse, oh wait south westerly is worse again, what direction is it now?“
The children thrash around at night muttering and calling out from their beds.
“That wind would cut right through you.”
The horses spook in their fields and anxiety builds around the roads as the puddles deepen and the waves break closer.
“When is high tide? Tides up now, tides filling, tide is out, they’ll be a good strand on Saturday.”
Sand stings your face while you scurry from the car to pick your beer cans, paper towel tubes and newspapers out of the hedge and right that recycling bin again.
“Bet its wild down your way.”
The car door whips open and wrenches backwards if you are too slow to grab the handle
“Any damage last night?”
Cold air sneaks through the keyholes and whirls around in the chimney
“I was waiting for the shingles to go last night. Didn’t get a wink.”
The palm trees bend and the grass ripples like a green pond
“You’d know winter was here.”