'Women in Politics' panel looks at challenges of being in male-dominated field

'Women in Politics' panel looks at challenges of being in male-dominated field

By Megan Webster | 10/30/17 1:14am

GVL / Courtesy - Megan Webster

In an effort to start a conversation about the different opportunities and challenges that women in politics face, Grand Valley State University invited seven different female politicians, both at the local and state level, to participate in a panel discussion. 

The event, which was co-sponsored by the Gayle R. Davis Center for Women and Gender Equity, the Brooks College Office of Integrative Learning and Advising, and the Community Service Learning Center, took place in L.V. Eberhard Center Wednesday, Oct. 25.

The "Women in Politics" panel was part of the Democracy 101 series, which includes other events throughout the semester. Melissa Baker-Boosamra, associate director of student life, civic engagement and assessment, said the premise of the panel was to continue learning about democracy in new ways and through new perspectives. 

“Our Democracy 101 series of critical conversation has emerged over the course of the past year and really came out as conversations that students, staff, faculty and community partners have been having around this kind of big question: What does democracy look like? How do we do it? What are democratic values?” Baker-Boosamra said.

The six panelists at the event each represented different areas of the Grand Rapids government and Michigan government, from education to state representation.

Among current national issues and the steps that young people can take to get involved with politics, one of the focuses of the panel was the different challenges these politicians have faced in their careers. 

When the topic of challenges was brought up, Wendy Falb of the Grand Rapids Public School Board said one of the biggest challenges she has experienced in her career is undergoing scrutiny of not only her political views but her character and image as a person as well.

“There was a time when I felt that the press and the public perception, and even the local perception, of me was not only inaccurate, but it was unfair and it was unflattering," she said. "It was very painful for me. It felt like my character was misunderstood, and it was brutally painful when you come with great intentions and you’re doing your best and for various reasons this happens.”

Along those same lines, Sonya Hernandez, a representative on the Latino/Hispanic Commission of Michigan, said one of the hardest challenges she’s encountered is finding different ways to balance her home life as a mom with her time-consuming life at work. 

“Some of the challenges have been finding balance as a mom, as a student and as a full-time employee,” Hernandez said. “I think finding that balance where a mom is expected to do certain things right, to be the one who get her kids off ready for school, get them on the bus and then go to work, then come home and clean and cook dinner and get your kids to bed. Finding that balance has been a struggle.” 

Given that the title of the panel was "Women in Politics," it was no surprise that Winnie Brinks, a Democratic member of the Michigan House of Representatives, brought up the lack of women in different branches of our current political sphere and the effect that has had on women who are currently in politics or who wish to be in politics one day.

“In the legislature in particular, and as you get into higher and higher office, ... there are fewer and fewer women,” Brinks said. “It’s not that the guys that are there are generally bad guys who wake up in morning and say, 'I’m going to cut off women in meetings today because I don’t want to let them finish their sentence.' It’s not like that, but it does happen all the time. So we’re constantly fighting for our space at that table.”

Fighting for a space at the table was another common theme throughout the panel. When asked what advice the panelists would give to women who wish to get involved in politics, the panel came to the agreement that in order to get a seat at that predominately male table, future politicians have to work and fight for it because as of right now, women are highly unrepresented in higher branches of the U.S. government. 

For more information about the Democracy 101 series, visit www.gvsu.edu/service/democracy-101-a-series-of-critical-conversations-181.htm.

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