Thursday, December 15, 2011

Women in Public Service

While trolling around the twitterverse a couple weeks ago, I came across a project that seemed so obvious and simple, yet so clearly needed, that I had to share it here on my public service focused blog. The Women in Public Service Project was started "To build a generation of women leaders who will invest in their countries and communities, provide leadership in their governments, and change the way global solutions are forged." One of the key goals of the WPSP is to bring up and coming women leaders from around the world together for training, mentoring, and network building.

On December 15, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton kicked off the WPS Project at a colloquium that featured an all-star line-up of female public servants, including Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund; Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State; Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations’ Development Programme and former Prime Minister of New Zealand; Atifete Jahjaga, President of Kosovo; Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Secretary of Health & Human Services; and Gloria Steinem, a preeminent feminist activist and author. One student blogger from Bryn Mawr  did a great summary of the key messages, with five pieces of advice for young women aspiring to be public servants that rang particularly true for me:

1) "Have confidence and belief in your vision

This is probably one of the hardest thing for young women to do, and while I am completely confident in my personal vision, transferring that belief to my work vision is not always easy. I always imagine that I will walk into a meeting and state exactly what I believe is the right course of action, but of course I often don't. However, as time has gone by, I've realized that my insight is valuable, whether I'm new to an issue or well-versed in the topic, and that there is little risk to speaking up.

2) "Seek out and foster relationships with mentors"

Absolutely. I have some amazing mentors in my life and am now working to be a resource for other young women. And I've also learned that building relationships with peers is equally important. Having a network of friends and colleagues, and working to maintain those connections as everyone moves up and out, is key. I am now very lucky to have friends both in and out of the government whom I know I can turn to when I need career or life advise, or if I just need someone to grab coffee or a drink with after a long day of work (so important!).

3) “Test your limits

In my short time in D.C. I've been able to be a part of things that I never in a million years thought would be possible. I've traveled around the world on behalf of the U.S. government and I've sat at a negotiating table and spoke into that microphone. I've participated on committees with dozens of people twice my age and I have stepped up to lead major efforts, despite my age and inexperience. Even when I don't think I'm ready, I stand up and do what needs to be done, and have been rewarded immensely for taking these chances.

4) “Grin and bear it

This advice came from Secretary Clinton on the criticism and scrutiny that women in positions of power face.  I don't think she was talking about being quiet at meetings or work, but rather she was telling women to grow a thick skin when it comes to how you are perceived. For women much more than men, who you are in public seeps into your work, and vice-versa. Our personal lives, who we date, our friends, our family, all become more ways for people to judge us at work. This may not be fair, and I hope it changes, but in the mean time I've become very cautious about how I live my life. New York Times Columnist Gail Collins recently highlighted a case of an Ambassador failing to receive confirmation because of her relationship decades ago.

In her column titled "The Ghosts of Boyfriend's Past" Collins paints a tongue-in-cheek picture of Mari Carmen Aponte's blocked nomination to be ambassador to El Salvador because of the objections of a few conservative Senator's over her boyfriend 2 decades prior. The situation would be amusing if it weren't downright discouraging to women seeking to be in positions of power someday. While I'm just at the beginning of my foreign service career, I have high aspirations and so am trying not to spook myself by thinking about the potential ghosts in my closet.

5) "Develop a strong understanding of economics"

At first glance this piece of advice seeks esoteric and out of place in a list of aspirational tid-bits, but I whole-heartedly agree. I started with a solid foundation in economics from graduate school and have since added to that by working in an economic-focused office and keeping up on current policy issues. Even though my passion is the environment, I fully appreciate that addressing climate change or preventing oil spills cannot be done without taking into account trade, business, and the global economy. In fact, I believe doing so will best be done through the economy, along with the right set of policy incentives. As a future Economic FSO, I'm betting my career on my understanding of economics and I think as a woman, this sets me apart.

So thanks to the Women in Public Service Project for keeping the ball rolling and providing a forum and tool for future women leaders.

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