Female elected leaders discuss barriers for women in politics
The proportion of women serving in elected positions on governing bodies has always been unreflective of their proportion of the population.
Although more women are currently serving in elected positions than in the past, men still typically occupy the majority of elected seats at all levels of government in the United States.
Three women who have defied that electoral reality by winning elected offices in Washington County came to Pacific University on Thursday, Feb. 6, to discuss their experiences running for office, the challenges they face in their positions and what can be done to make governing bodies more representative of the population.
The panel consisted of See Eun Kim, a former teacher at the Hillsboro School District who was elected to the district's board last year; Felicita Monteblanco, policy and advocacy director at Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Clinic and chair of the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District's board of directors; and Kate Grandusky, who has served on the Forest Grove School District's board of directors since 2011.
Along with moderator Jayne Cravens, Kim, Monteblanco and Grandusky discussed experiences like being bullied by male colleagues and feeling like they didn't deserve to be in their positions, as well as the need to remove barriers for women to run for office.
The Hillsboro/Forest Grove Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) hosted the talk in partnership with Pacific's Institute for Gender Equity February 2020 Program on "Gender and Politics."
All three women described never having expected to run for office, but their reasons for ultimately doing so all differed.
Kim said she decided to run because, as a third-grade teacher, she noticed a disconnect between the intent behind policies and how those policies were actually implemented in the classroom.
"It led me to ask a lot of questions and do a lot of research to see who's actually making these decisions," Kim said. "I realized there's a lot of governance that happens at a local level."
She said she wanted to "bridge the gap" between the policymakers and those charged with enacting policy.
Monteblanco said she realized she didn't agree with many of the votes being cast on the THPRD board after being encouraged to run by Beaverton City Councilor Lacey Beaty, who is now running for mayor.
"The board at that time was entirely male, which was not terribly reflective of the demographics of Beaverton," Monteblanco said, to laughter.
When she was elected, she also became the board's first Latina member, even though the Beaverton area has a sizable minority who identifies as Hispanic of Latino. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Beaverton itself is 16.6% Hispanic or Latino, and Aloha is 22.8%.
Grandusky said she was motivated to run when the Forest Grove School District moved to close the Gales Creek School, which was built in 1859.
"I was mad as hell," said Grandusky, who lives in the Gales Creek area. "I knew, and the community knew, that it wasn't because of cost — they just wanted to close the school and put a new facility out there. But it really affected the heart of our community, and I was very vocal."
She said she faced bullying from her colleagues for years after she took her position because the board members didn't agree with her, nor did they like her, she felt. She wasn't very familiar as "Robert's Rules of Order," the public meeting rules that government bodies like school boards and city councils follow. She said one time when she asked a colleague how to take an item off the consent agenda — operations voted on collectively because they're considered routine — for discussion, her colleague told her the wrong procedure to humiliate her.
"I just felt really disrespected," Grandusky said.
For advice, Grandusky frequently went to Janeen Sollman, who served on the Hillsboro School Board at the time and now represents parts of Washington County in the Oregon House of Representatives.
All three women said having female mentors is key to being successful as elected officials.
Kim said not having female mentors who came from similar backgrounds as her was a significant obstacle.
"I am the first Asian American to serve on the school board in Hillsboro," Kim said, even though the city's population is 11.6% Asian, according to the Census Bureau.
Kim added, "Growing up, I had subconsciously only seen myself being acceptable in only certain types of positions. Hillsboro has come a long way, but I think there's a lot more work we need to do."
Kim and Monteblanco said since winning their elections, they've both at times had "impostor syndrome" — feeling like they didn't deserve or belong in their positions.
"The biggest obstacle that I faced was low self-esteem, not feeling like I was worthy. Every now and then I go to the extremes of that, which is so silly, " Monteblanco said. "Of course I'm worthy. Of course I'm smart enough. I know my community. I'm passionate about my community."
When asked about what needs to change to get more women in elected office, the panelists agreed on a few main ideas. For one, they said, there needs to be a greater emphasis on civic education in schools. Secondly, they argued, government bodies need to actively monitor and improve access to public information. They also agreed that Oregon's lack of limits on campaign contributions is an obstacle for many people who would run if there were a more level financial playing field.
"Childcare is huge," Monteblanco added. "I would encourage you to ask your electeds, 'Why isn't childcare provided?'"
Some local government bodies are beginning to offer childcare during public meetings, as Monteblanco noted. Hillsboro started offering supervised play during the city's public meetings in the fall.
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