“You can’t be what you can’t see.”
This adage was repeated again and again at the “Women Elected in Cambridge” panel at the Cambridge Public Library on May 23.
City councilors Alanna Mallon, Sumbul Siddiqui and Denise Simmons, along with Vice Mayor Jan Devereux, gathered to discuss the opportunities and challenges that come with being a woman in elected office, and how Cambridge can introduce policies that will allow women to pursue, and thrive in, leadership positions.
It was not long ago that Simmons was the only woman on the council. She described the experience as lonely.
“Women lead differently. It is not that men don’t lead well, it is that women lead differently,” she said. “I found myself always pushing the women’s issues. When you have more women in the room, you don’t have to push.”
How women lead differently
The panel returned to this idea that women lead differently several times throughout the evening, discussing how the diversity of opinion, approach and priorities that women bring to elected positions have made the council stronger as a whole.
“Women tend to listen more and speak less, and that comes out in the council meetings,” said Mallon. “To be a good leader, you need to listen to so many different viewpoints. … [Cambridge is] a very diverse community, and we need to make sure that we are making policy that is not just for one group of people, but for everyone.”
Siddiqui added that women are more likely to acknowledge the ideas of others. “I have started counting the amount of times I have said something and a male colleague has repeated it … but not said ‘as Councilor Siddiqui said.’… But my female colleagues listen and take the time to give credit.”
Women who decide to run for local government positions face a lot of doubt and questions, both from those around them and from themselves.
“Running for office and being an elected official literally never crossed my mind until about four years ago,” said Devereux. “I have self-doubt every single day. I am not a particularly outgoing person and I struggle a lot with that, but it is also a great learning experience.”
Grappling with imposter syndrome was something all the women on the panel had faced.
“My first campaign debate was on this stage with 26 other candidates and I thought, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to say.’ I didn’t think I was smart enough to do this,” said Mallon. “I take copious notes at meetings because I am terrified that I am not smart enough. … Every day it gets easier and it’s because of these women by my side.”
Devereux, Mallon and Siddiqui all participated in Emerge America, a program that recruits and trains women to run for office as Democrats. The program was not established when Simmons was first running for office, but she learned to transfer skills from other parts of her life to politics.
“The things I did at home with my family all applied,” said Simmons. “How do you organize people? How do you make them show up on time? How do you make sure you’re prepared? It was all about transferring skills I already had to City Council. That’s something that lots of women don’t understand: we already do it.”
Encouraging young girls to be leaders
Simmons runs a program called G.O.L.D. (Girls Only Leadership Development), which seeks to empower girls in Cambridge to find their own career path and voice.
“We put them in a room with women professionals who tell their stories of how they got where they are,” said Simmons. “The most important thing we can do for young girls is expose them to women in leadership positions.”
This kind of exposure was very important for Siddiqui when she was young.
“I came from a low-income family and my family was focused on just putting food on the table, so for me the exposure came from friends’ families,” said Siddiqui. “But we have extreme wealth inequality and someone from my background may not necessarily have that exposure. The more each of us in the community can be mentors for young women and men, it is very important. It made a huge difference in my life.”
Policies going forward
The panel also covered policy issues related to the well-being of women from infant-age to elderly. Many subject such as access to affordable housing and early childhood education were discussed, the issue that came up the most was equal pay. In July, a new equal pay law will go into effect in Massachusetts, clarifying what constitutes unlawful wage discrimination and proving additional workplace protections for women.
“When we impoverish women, we impoverish families, and when we impoverish families we impoverish cities and towns, particularly people of color,” said Simmons. “We need to be very intentional about making sure the city is paying its women fairly.”