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To change policy you must start at the root

Katie Kalugin, left, and Mary Olberding, Emerge MA alumna and board member, at the Women’s Suffrage Celebration Coalition Women’s Equality Day event on August 24, 2017. Courtesy photo

Interning with Emerge Massachusetts this summer affirmed an idea I have always thought a lot about pertaining to the role of nonprofit organizations in social change. With any social movement, the involvement of all sectors and groups is needed to truly garner the attention of the public, elected officials, and other policymakers. Without a unified front, issues get lost or lack political will. To build momentum around an issue, a coalition of people with the same objective, yet different skills and leverage, must coalesce to confront all angles of a problem. Once organized, a movement can impact change by working to introduce or improve current policy. For more systemic problems, however, policy changes alone cannot justly grasp the complexity of some of society’s most deeply embedded issues.

In her book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, Naomi Klein argues that it is culture itself that must be confronted, “and not policy by policy, but at the root.” Klein’s argument is not that we do not need policy solutions, but that in order for these policies to be effective, they have to account for the reasons why an issue persists despite efforts to mitigate its effects, such as the pervasiveness of culture, attitudes, and political belief systems.

Let us consider the U.S. gender wage gap for a moment. It has been widely proven that women generally earn less than men, and one reason this occurs is because of overt discrimination in terms of clear pay discrepancies along with unfair hiring and promotional practices. A response to this disparate treatment is an equal pay movement intent on establishing anti-discrimination laws that bar discriminatory firm practices and laws like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (2009) which restores protection from unequal pay claims on the basis of sex, race, national origin, age, religion, and disability.

Much more is going on with the gender wage gap than simply unequal pay among women and men, and decreasing overt discrimination does not do enough to address the major barriers facing women in the workforce, especially those tending to children or sick relatives. Women are overwhelmingly the primary caregivers in their homes and consequently, experience more difficulty balancing their work and family responsibilities amid often inflexible work standards bound by time and locational constraints.

Equal pay laws do not solve the work/life balance dilemma, hence the demand for family-friendly workplace programs. Though family-friendly workplace policies help alleviate the added obstacles working parents and caregivers encounter due to the support they offer in an otherwise rigid and unaccommodating structure, they are still limited by social norms and gender expectations.

Harvard professor Claudia Goldin believes in workplace flexibility to give people the ability to choose their hours, or give them work hours that are more predictable. Goldin finds that the attractiveness of discretion over work time is relative to an individual’s unique preferences, and unsurprisingly, women place a higher value on temporal flexibility than men. Men are also more reluctant to take advantage of this opportunity because of gender roles that work against them in this scenario with the fear of being seen as less masculine and less devoted to their work.

Goldin says that “as long as men who are in flexible work arrangements place their masculinity under suspicion, such policies will be underutilized and ineffective.” The capability of this program depends on the participation of men and requires a progressive shift and egalitarian understanding of caregiving as a duty applicable to all and valued just as much as paid work.

What the equal pay movement and family-friendly programs suggest is that policy solutions should be accompanied by additional measures that respond to social attitudes and behaviors that are at the root and hold back the progression of certain issues.

The work of Emerge Massachusetts is to change the face of politics by identifying, training, and electing women into public office to counter a political system that has historically been a sphere for white men. The organization has clearly identified the issue as a lack of representation of women in politics and is addressing the problem at its very core – by challenging the status quo and a culture dominated and sustained by men. Emerge MA is transforming our understanding of who can and should be an elected official.

Much of policy is informed directly by those in leadership positions, and Emerge MA asks people to reimagine a system with more women running for office:

“Imagine the publicity of their campaigns, and how they would redefine what it means to be a lawmaker. Imagine how their diverse perspectives would impact our state’s legislative agenda. Imagine how their victories would push the Massachusetts legislature closer and closer to gender parity.”

When we envision women in office, we turn the once unattainable into a reality and begin to shift more power and decision-making in the hands of well-suited women. Policy is not what is holding women back from positions in public office – we know that women are more hesitant and find this endeavor to be less attractive and feasible than men do. And even though society’s attitudes toward women in politics has become more supportive, stereotypes and conservative ideals tied to the proper role of women in our culture tend to stigmatize independent and powerful women in leadership positions. We need not look any further than the sexist treatment experienced by Hillary Clinton during her bid as the nation’s first woman president.

My internship with Emerge Massachusetts has made me think more about how to create effective and viable policies that target the root causes of issues, rather than alleviate problems temporarily or reactively. My studies at Northeastern continue to show me that public policy must be assessed and determined based on context and a thorough needs assessment, meaning it is the responsibility of policymakers to account for the political and social climate in which they operate and to consider the factors that may counter the projected goal of their initiatives or facets of legislation.

Emerge Massachusetts is advancing toward its goal of more women running and winning public office because the organization knows that systems are inseparable from each other, that they often work in tandem and reinforce one another, and to affect change implies finding the common threat among these systems.


Published On: August 31, 2017 |
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