Votes of confidence

Evidence tells us that women’s perspectives change the sorts of policy produced and even the nature of politics for the better, yet women remain a minority in elected office. These alumnae of the Public Policy Program plan to change that.

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By Susan McCarthy • Photos by Dana Davis

Carla Hansen, MPP ’11, wants your vote. If you live in her town, she hopes to knock on your door soon and gain your support.

Hansen came to Mills with a degree in journalism and an interest in sociology and politics. She thought she knew her options. “I assumed that if you want to make change in the world, you can work at a nonprofit or in government,” she says. “I went into Mills thinking I would go into nonprofit management.”

The course Women’s Leadership in Politics helped change Hansen’s perspective, she says. On the first day of class, which primarily attracts undergraduate policy students but also includes those pursuing master’s degrees in public policy (MPP), adjunct professor Anne Moses asked how many students had ever imagined running for office. Hansen was not among the one or two who raised their hands. Running for office seemed like something only rich, well-connected people, maybe from political families, would do.

When women run for office, they’re just as likely to be elected as men, says Carol Chetkovich, director of the Public Policy Program at Mills. But fewer women run, so there are fewer female politicians. That makes a difference in what issues are discussed and what legislation is produced. The Public Policy Program, at both graduate and undergraduate levels, is encouraging women to apply their education in policy and planning within elected office.

“Politics is actually where you make the most policy,” says Chetkovich. But it’s common for women with a strong interest in politics to imagine themselves in an advisory role.

“It’s not that people won’t vote for women,” Chetkovich says. “Research shows that it’s primarily a problem of not enough women running for office. One of the reasons is that at equal levels of self-confidence, men are more apt to say, ‘Yeah, sure, I can run.’”  

Moses agrees that women too often don’t picture themselves in a leading role. “I tell my students, “You don’t have to stand behind a curtain whispering into someone’s ear. You could be in front of the curtain.”

Women’s Leadership in Politics (often called Women in Politics), co-taught by Moses and adjunct professor Catalina Ruiz-Healy, presents women speakers from both political parties who are council members, school board chairs, commissioners, fundraisers, campaign managers, and pollsters. The class also teaches skills useful in political campaigns and in holding office.

Chetkovich is impressed with the results since the class was first offered in 2010. “We’ve seen many students come in with a slight interest in politics and really get fired up.” On the last day of Hansen’s Women in Politics class, Moses asked again who would consider running for office. “Probably six or seven people raised their hands”—and this time, Hansen was one.  

“Policy decisions have real effects in the community.”

—Carla Hansen, MPP ’11

“The Women in Politics class really demystified the process of going through a campaign and actually working in office,” says Hansen. “It made it easier to fathom doing such a thing in my own life.”

Hansen is gaining relevant experience through her current work as an analyst for a North Bay city, where she is excited about finding the best way to build affordable housing. She enthusiastically describes comparing the pluses and minuses of working with the federal government versus contracting out to a nonprofit agency.

A Mills class in Local Planning and Management had already given her a different understanding of how complex systems interact in a city or town. Analysis of zoning regulations, commercial districts, and transportation planning answered questions like, Why are there potholes in my road? or Why are there no small businesses here, only big box stores? “It opened my eyes to how policy decisions have real effects in the community,” she says.  

She plans to run for local office in El Cerrito, perhaps within the next few years. “One of my goals is to talk with every resident, and knock on every door,” she says. She wants to meet people who don’t necessarily go to city council meetings, and find out what they want. Are they concerned about children’s summer camp hours being cut? Pruning on road medians? Sustainable growth? “What do they expect out of local government, and what can staff actually deliver?”

And what will she do if she wins a seat? Hansen will be able to answer that question better after she’s knocked on some doors.  

“I really feel obligated to become involved in politics. I feel obligated as a citizen.”

—Lori Droste, MPP ’11

“Don’t we want the diversity of the government to represent the diversity of the population?” asks Anne Moses.

“Learning about the dearth of women in public office in the United States had such an impact on me,” says Lori Droste, MPP ’11. “Women are 50 percent of the electorate, but only 18 percent of Congress.” In California, which has elected women such as Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, and Diane Feinstein to prominent national offices, women fill only 28 percent of the seats in the state assembly. “In reality, we’re completely underrepresented,” Droste says.

Droste might have been expected to find the idea of a political career more familiar than most. Her mother was the mayor of Circleville, Ohio, the small town where Droste grew up, and has also been involved in state politics. Perhaps because of her mother’s career, Droste hadn’t realized how under-represented women are in politics.

“I’d actually never thought about running for public office,” she says. But after the Women in Politics class, “I really feel obligated to become involved in politics. I feel obligated as a citizen.”

Before entering the Public Policy Program at Mills, Droste taught high school and was an educator for homeless people. She has now been elected chair of Berkeley’s Commission on the Status of Women and secretary and treasurer of Alameda County’s Human Relations Commission. Her work with the commissions has focused on human trafficking.

Droste has a wonky enthusiasm for policy research. Often, she says, “there seems to be a great eagerness to find a solution without adequately defining the problem.” She describes a hypothetical example of people energized about tackling human trafficking, for instance, who might want start by providing awareness programs for children in local schools, who are presumed to be at risk. “But what if we analyze the problem and find that 99 percent of the victims are international victims?” she asks. “Then putting resources into school programs would miss the problem.”

As a woman, a lesbian, and, by Berkeley standards, a political moderate concerned about walkability, affordable housing, and the direction of downtown development, Droste is setting her sights on a city office in order to play a part in making her local government more representative. “In Berkeley, there’s a strong dedication to socially progressive values. I think that I can represent that while also implementing smart growth for the city,” Droste says. She’d like to help “grow the city in a way that’s progressive and environmentally sound, and will allow our businesses to thrive, and allow the people who live and work there to thrive.”

“Women politicians raise a different mix of topics—women’s rights, reproductive rights, family issues, domestic violence. We need to add our voice on any issue that affects us.”

—Natasha Middleton, MPP ’13

Will it make a difference to have more women in office? Research shows that women practice politics a little differently. “Women tend to be more collaborative, more consensus-building,” says Anne Moses. “The issues that get talked about are different when different people are at the table. People tend to bring up issues that concern them.”

Linda Tarr-Whelan, former ambassador to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, has documented that when a political body includes 30 percent women or more, there is more negotiation and compromise. Greater attention is paid to issues like health care and childcare. “Thirty percent is the tipping point,” says Catalina Ruiz-Healy. “You see the decisions changing and the outcomes of legislation.”

Natasha Middleton, who expects to complete her MPP degree in May, agrees. “Women politicians raise a different mix of topics—women’s rights, reproductive rights, family issues, domestic violence,” she lists. “We need to add our voice on any issue that affects us.”

She also sees the concrete value in taking a collaborative approach. “Politics is all about having difficult conversations,” she notes, and explains how the Negotiations class, offered at the Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business, was particularly helpful.

“To have a meeting of minds, you have to really understand where the other side is coming from,” Middleton says. “You have to be able to reach out to that person and see if they’re willing to compromise. It’s about really understanding their position—and also helping them understand that not everyone’s going to win 100 percent of the time. ”

Middleton has spent her last 20 years—and raised her son—in Oakland. She’s passionate about the city, and has been a policy intern for the school district’s African-American Male Achievement Office, served four years on the board of the Family Violence Law Center, and interned for City Council member Larry Reid. She also served as a delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention. “It was inspiring to represent my district,” she says, “I’ve always believed in this process.”

She plans to pursue work in city management and eventually seek office, and credits her time at Mills with increasing her commitment to public service. “Even though we write about policy, it’s not enough,” she says. “We need to be acting.”

“I do believe if you want to see some change, and you have the opportunity to do it, you almost have a duty to do it,” she says.

Hansen, Droste, and Middleton are all currently enrolled in Emerge California, a seven-month intensive political leadership training program for Democratic women. “They tell you how to media-message your campaign, how to gain endorsements, but also how to be your authentic self,” Hansen says.

But the roads to office are many and varied. Sahar Shirazi, MPP ’11, is in Washington DC, where she’s a Presidential Management Fellow and a policy analyst in the Department of Transportation. “I never thought of myself as being able to be one of the decision-makers. I’m from an immigrant family, a lowincome family. It just didn’t seem like a real thing that I could accomplish,” Shirazi says. But the Women in Politics class gave her the insight and confidence to pursue that goal. “Ultimately I plan on returning to the Bay Area to run for office.”

Undergraduate Dawna Williams, a lifelong “political junkie,” also recognized that there could be a leading part for her in politics. “Regular people run for office. They have lives, they have families,” she says she realized while hearing the Women in Politics speakers. “If they can do it, why can’t I?” Williams will be appointed to a community advisory commission in Pittsburg in June 2013, which she anticipates will be a stepping stone to the city council. She has no doubt that she will run for office in the future.

Ruiz-Healy says that several students sent her thank-you notes at the end of the 2012 Women in Politics class. “One said it restored a little of her faith in political practice,” Ruiz-Healy says. Having met the women who work in politics and came to speak to the class, “Now she knows there are some good people working in government. She was heartened by that.” And as more women come to the fore of political leadership, there will be even more good people in government.

As part of Mills’ commitment to increasing women’s leadership at the local, national, and international levels, the College is also participating in the Women in Public Service Project (WPSP). This initiative, established through a partnership between the US Department of State and women’s colleges across the country, aims to identify, educate, and support a new generation of women committed to public service—with a goal of achieving a world in which political and civic leadership is at least 50 percent female by 2050. See more at