Breaking barriers, smashing glass ceilings : Training women to pursue opportunities in public policy

4 December 2020

With the support of Canadian donor Rebecca Gardiner, KBF Canada is launching the next phase of the Countdown Project founded by Jeri Powell in the United States, training women to pursue opportunities in public policy and politics.

Jeri Powell, Founder of The Countdown Project

“There are so many different pathways for women to get to a place where they end up on the ballot,” says Powell. “We want to create a place where we support women along different avenues and ways to engage in the process.”

Paving the way for women leaders

A hundred years after American women gained the right to vote, they remain massively underrepresented in public office. As of last year, the US still ranked 76th in the world in gender parity based on the number of women serving in the US House of Representatives. The country has yet to elect a woman president, and female representation in legislative bodies hovers at under 30 percent. Research indicates women are just as likely to win once they are on the ballot and to be successful in elected office. However, women have a lower chance of finding their way onto the ballot as they are less likely to be identified by gatekeepers, have less access to mentors and power brokers, and raise less money, among other factors.

Powell, an attorney, advocate, consultant and Columbia University faculty member, is determined to help remove these common barriers to political leadership for women and especially women of colour. She founded the Countdown Project to connect women pursuing roles in politics and public policy with leaders in the field, building their knowledge and network. “It’s a way to give talented women just the right combination of expertise and opportunity,” she says. The project effectively helps women achieve in a short time what would take years to accomplish on their own, providing them valuable insights into how to navigate the worlds of government, advocacy and political campaigns.

A power-packed programme

In January Powell hosted a New York-focused pilot programme titled “Pathways to Politics” at Columbia University featuring high-profile politicians and experts. “It was power-packed from beginning to end,” says participant Shadawn Smith, Vice President of External Affairs and Community Engagement for NYC & Company, who was appointed to her local community board after taking part in the programme. “It really pulled the curtain away and gave me this great understanding of what it takes to run and what a successful campaign looks like.”

The nonpartisan project emphasises diversity: over half the participants are women of colour. “I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how critically powerful it is that KBF Canada is backing a Black woman to do this work,” says Powell. “When you invest in women of colour, as a natural consequence the programmes that we develop will be more inclusive, more diverse.” The programme sends a strong message to women that they don’t have to self-select out or exclude themselves because they feel they don’t have the “right” background or experience. “This programme gives you that confidence and that knowledge that you can do it, and that you are so needed in politics and government,” says Smith.

More ambitious, more accessible

The concept is now expanding to the national level, creating an ambitious online programme to be offered to 35 women in early 2021. The programme is geared towards candidates who are accomplished in any area, regardless of previous public policy or political experience. It is designed to be short and effective, so that women don’t have to struggle with taking time off of work or family to attend. While the virtual format is currently necessary for health reasons, it also has the advantage of further reducing barriers to participation by making it easier for women around the country to attend. “The fact that this is virtual means we’re not confined by geography, and I think that’s a really attractive aspect of the project we’re working on here at KBF Canada,” says Powell. “It’s really exciting that we can broaden the pool of participants as well as the guest lecturers.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is making it hard for newcomers to the process to network, making it all the more important to try to level the playing field. “Elections are still happening, and government is still running, so we have to keep finding ways to keep going,” says Powell. “I sense that what we develop here will persist even once the world is moving again because there’s always going to be value in offering something that is more accessible.”

Diverse leadership for the greater good  

Studies show that diversity and diverse leadership styles increase the efficacy of governing bodies, leading to policy outcomes benefitting a wider section of the population. “With more representation you see more policies, more legislation coming out that truly represents everyone,” says Smith. The pandemic has put economic and health policy disparities into stark relief, showing the urgent need for policies that benefit the greater good. While the direct impact of the Countdown Project is in the US, it is also important for Canada, as direct neighbour of the US. “I see it as a question of urgency, I think it’s a question of realising that we just don’t have the luxury of trying to prove that gender parity and gender equity in government and in politics and in elective office is essential,” says Powell. “It’s not a nice to have, it’s a must have.”