As the 2017 session of the Idaho Legislature gets underway, there’s a small difference evident in the makeup of the legislative body. The proportion of women lawmakers has risen slightly from last year, from 27 percent to 30 percent. The Idaho Senate lost one female lawmaker in the November elections, but the House gained four, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
That 30 percent puts Idaho above the national average of 25 percent when it comes to women in legislative seats, and that’s good. But it still points to a big problem nationally in leadership, whether it’s in government, nonprofits, or private business: women aren’t participating in decision-making roles nearly as much as they should be.
This matters because the decisions made by leaders affect women. When they’re not giving their voices to policymaking discussions, when they’re not casting votes that will have a lasting impact on their community, they’re letting someone else do it for them.
Also, women make good leaders. Not only do they bring a different perspective from that of men, they also govern differently, according to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. Studies show that women are more likely than their male colleagues to be motivated by policy goals, not power and prestige. According to research from Rutgers, both male and female lawmakers will attest that women make the legislative process more transparent and open. They tend to show a more democratic, less confrontational style of leadership, and are more open to non-hierarchical collaboration.
But the same studies also show women are less likely than their male counterparts to think they are qualified to run for a leadership position, or to put their names forward.
Business leaders are working hard to find ways to attract more women job applicants and to get women to join their boards. Studies show that board diversity pays off in increased profits and better connection with customers. After all, women make a lot of spending decisions.
Policy leaders know this, too, and there is an abundance of individuals and groups working on the situation. Over the years, a few more leadership-themed groups have formed in Boise.
The newest is Idaho Women in Leadership, or I-WIL, a months-old project underwritten by Zions Bank for this year and next and led by First Lady Lori Otter. I-WIL has two paid staff members. Program Director Amanda Visosky can be reached at email@example.com.
Concordia University Law School’s Women leading Women discussion series provides forums aimed at women who are trying to gain prominence in their profession. The series, underwritten by the Perkins Coie law firm, is run by law students and is aimed at helping women gain the knowledge they need to attain success in their careers.
One of the best-known local women’s leadership groups is Go Lead Idaho, which presents events and social hours aimed at showing women how to apply for leadership positions on boards and commissions, and in other areas.
Another popular event is the Women and Leadership conference put on by Boise State University’s Andrus Center every September. In 2014, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was the headliner.
There are also women’s groups at workplaces such as Hewlett-Packard, Micron, Power Engineers, Albertsons Companies Inc., the Idaho National Laboratory, and many more. Other groups such as the American Association of University Women in Boise and the Idaho Professional Women’s Express Network in Idaho Falls also show women a path to leadership. And many professions, such as real estate and law, also have strong women’s groups. One of Visosky’s roles at I-WIL is finding all these groups and compiling information about them.
Otter created I-WIL in part to bring together these many small groups so they could work more effectively. I-WIL is also focused on helping women run for political and corporate leadership positions.
“We’re not trying to replace all these women’s groups,” said Otter. “We’re just trying to navigate what lane hasn’t been filled with our group.”
The nonpartisan I-WIL is working on the creation of a public leadership campaign school that will teach women around Idaho how to run for office, whether it’s city council, the school board, the Legislature, or anything else. That’s due to start in April. Otter said she’d also like to start a legislative women’s caucus to get women from everywhere on the political spectrum talking to each other more.
I-WIL’s first event is a Feb. 6 day at the Idaho Statehouse. It’s designed to show participants how the legislative process works and help them hear from people who are actively involved in politics and business. To participate, contact Visosky.
It’s not just women who would like to see leaders who reflect the history, the viewpoints, and the needs of the general population. Men are welcome to participate in most of these women’s groups and their events, and many do.
“We want gender equity, and that means men and women are both part of the conversation,” said Cathe Scott, who leads the Andrus Center event each year. “We try to involve men as much as we can.”
Anne Wallace Allen is editor of the Idaho Business Review.