The VCU Department of Political Science hosted a panel entitled Women, Power, & Politics to discuss the opportunities and challenges women face when working in public service. The panel was composed of prominent Virginia public servants including Deputy Secretary of Education Holly Cox, Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson, Assistant Attorney General Mona Siddiqui, and Tyee Davenport-Mallory, Regional Director for Sen. Tim Kaine.
The panel was part of an ongoing event series called Build Your Network, Know Your Net Worth, which seeks to empower political science students to meet and question professionals in their chosen field.
A’Jee Delaigle, an Internship Program Development Assistant for the Political Science Department, organized the event and moderated the panel discussion. She said the goal of the panel was to give students an opportunity to establish connections with political professionals outside the classroom.
“Hosting these discussions is going to be an avenue for them to learn better networking skills, learn socialization skills, as well as answer those burning questions,” Delaigle said.
Burning questions like, what advice do you have for young women in a male-dominated workforce like politics?
The panelists responded to this, the first question posed to them, by encouraging female students to be professional, prepared, and assertive in the course of their careers.
“Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. That’s really important, otherwise you can easily get lost in the shuffle,” said Siddiqui.
The panelists emphasized the importance of starting at the bottom and working your way up in government. Thomasson was still a student at VCU when she started interning for Mark Warner, but she was able to use that opportunity to secure a job and work on his team for the next 13 years. However, her early success has not always been an asset in Thomasson’s career because colleagues often underestimate her authority and abilities based on her appearance.
“One of the things that I have struggled with throughout my career is that I look very young and it’s something that makes it harder to be taken seriously in a lot of positions,” Thomasson said. “As a woman especially I don’t think that the same response would have been given to a man in that position who looks young.”
The panel also addressed the unique challenges that pregnancy and motherhood present in professional life. For example, as a law student Siddiqui enrolled her first baby in a day care across the street from her university, so she could breast-feed between classes. But far from seeing her children as a hindrance to her career, Siddiqui views them as an asset.
“I think they actually made me more focused and motivated as to what I wanted to do,” Siddiqui said.
All four of the panelists are mothers who work full-time leadership positions in the Virginia government. They agreed that working in the public sphere helped them maintain a balance between work and home life, because their offices officially close by 5 p.m. every day and any additional work they have can usually be done from home. Siddiqui and Coy, who both started in the private sector before entering public service, noted that working for the government is a much more family-friendly.
“Despite what you hear, you can’t be everything to everyone all the time. And as women we tend to try to do that, so having spouses, supportive networks and workplace colleagues who understand all that and understand when it’s their time to cover for your is really important,” said Coy.
The private sector also offers the incentive of better pay for these highly qualified women, but they say that money isn’t what motivates them.
“We do this work because we have a heart for the issues that we work for and we care about public service,” said Davenport-Mallory.
The Political Science Department will be hosting a panel discussion on April 6th entitled So You Want To Be A Lawyer for students interested in pursuing law school and a Civil Service Panel on April 21st. The department is also looking for alumni and other Richmond-area professionals to act as mentors to their political science undergraduate students. To become a mentor, visit https://goo.gl/forms/nClwt8gAaVlIM2Rc2.
Images from the panel are on Political Science’s Facebook page.