Getting More Women into Top Government Jobs Starts with Student Leadership
During this season of giving, we’re sharing stories about how AAUW’s programs affect real women and girls all over the country. The following story originally appeared in the 2013 AAUW annual report.
It’s outrageous but true. Women currently hold just 18 percent of the seats in Congress and 24 percent of seats in state legislatures. To remedy that problem, AAUW and Running Start launched the Elect Her–Campus Women Win program, which trains college women to run for student government. Bottom line: More women need to run for office. They need inspiration, they need expertise, they need experience, and they need to start as soon as possible.
“Elect Her is the only national program encouraging and training college women to run for student government,” says Jessica Kelly, an AAUW program manager. “During the trainings, participants build leadership skills and start to see themselves as potential candidates. The goal is to engage these women in politics early and create a pipeline of leaders who will run for office someday. In short, we’re ultimately hoping to increase women’s representation in government.”
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Each year since its founding five years ago, Elect Her reaches more campuses. In 2012–13, trainings were held at 38 sites around the country, and a record 16 attendees went on to run for student government president. Thirteen students—a whopping 81 percent of those who ran—won their races.
Melissa Westbrook, a political science and interdisciplinary studies major at the University of Central Florida, was one of the victors. Westbrook attended the UCF Elect Her training with 23 other students in March.
“As women, we need to run for office,” Westbrook says. “We might not think we can make a difference, but we can. So often, we think we are alone. But we have women behind us, motivating and supporting us, telling us that we can reach our goals.”
“One of the best parts of the training was seeing the participants realize that they had a roomful of other women who would support and encourage them,” adds Nicole Elinoff, a UCF student who helped organize the training. “Seeing all of those people on your side and urging you to take action gave participants a great feeling of community.”
But the UCF training was special beyond Westbrook’s successful campaign. It also honored UCF alumna Jennifer Gonzalez Perdomo. An intern at AAUW, Perdomo had been working toward a master’s degree at George Washington University when she became ill and passed away suddenly in 2011. Her graduate school classmates created a memorial fund to support projects that Perdomo, a fierce advocate of mentorship and women in politics, was passionate about.
Sponsoring the Elect Her training was the perfect fit to keep Perdomo’s work alive: Students left the training inspired to run and to foster the kind of sisterhood that Perdomo believed in and that her friends hoped to keep thriving. “At the training, I learned a lot of campaign strategies,” says Westbrook. “But I also learned that I had a support system even though I had just met these women. They helped me with my campaign and supported me in my endeavors, and I will support them in anything they do.”
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