This legislative session, I have the honor of being a young legislative intern for a remarkable woman in the Utah House of Representatives. And as I sit in my training seminar with all of the other legislative interns from colleges across the state—University of Utah, Westminster, Utah State, Salt Lake Community College, Dixie State, Southern Utah University, among others—I count the women.
There are 21 women out of approximately 65 interns. Moreover, there are only 3 women of color that I can see (including myself). Of course, this is a dramatic improvement from 1998, when now-Salt Lake City Mayor (and my former boss) Jackie Biskupski first took her seat in the House of Representatives. Nevertheless, 21 women here is still a minority. Despite the fact that women make up just under 50% of the undergraduate student body at the University of Utah (University of Utah 2013), only one third of the interns represented were women. To me, neither number is enough.
I’ve been fortunate to have a number of strong, intelligent, inspirational female role models in my life to this point. On Mayor Biskupski’s campaign, both the Mayor and my direct supervisor Christine Passey were some of the most hard-working, intelligent, and determined people I’ve ever encountered. My own mother, too, has been an exemplary role model of quiet confidence and strength.” I grew up watching her run a global business; she made difficult executive decisions daily, never faltering. I also watched women on the national stage as President Obama appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, as well as Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Had it not been for the women who shattered glass ceilings before us, I and many others may not be where we are today
Still, 21 women in a group of 65 is not enough for me. If someone asked me if 50% would be enough, I would say that it was only barely acceptable. Men have led states and shaped our world since the dawn of time, in the absence of female (and especially non-binary gender) leaders. I follow the logic of the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg (or, more famously, the Notorious RBG). “For most of the country’s history, there were nine [Supreme Court Justices] and they were all men. Nobody thought that was strange.”
As I was listening to former state Senator Pat Jones speak to our group, she said that women generally do not run for office of their own accord. Instead, she said, women need to be asked and encouraged to lead, because we don’t feel entitled and confident in our abilities to do so. When I took a class on military geography, I was one of only two women in a class of 35. My professor asked me to lead the research team that would be studying Syria, and I felt tremendously insecure in that position. I was leading a team of men, and we would present our research to a panel of highly intelligent, highly qualified men, many of whom were career military. If I’d had any less knowledge or background studying Syria and its conflicts, I would have undoubtedly declined.
Recent studies have found that women who move further in their careers frequently find themselves experiencing “imposter syndrome.” This is the sense that you are a fraud, that you’re not qualified for something and haven’t truly earned your achievement—and that it’s only a matter of time before everybody around you finds out. I have experienced this personally since the day I walked into my first lecture in my freshman year of college, and many women I’ve spoken with along the way have said they experience the same feeling.
We need more women. We need to encourage women that they are more than capable of being strong, steadfast leaders, whether they want to lead a country or a household. We need to teach women that if they walk into a room filled with men, they have a right to their seat all the same.
And it starts with education, at all levels. Women in college should be continually reminded of their strength and potential, but by this time too many women have been lost as potential leaders. It starts with our young girls, in our primary schools and in our homes.
It starts with fathers, who won’t let girls play ice hockey because it’s a “boy’s sport.” It starts with the boys in my own high school varsity ice hockey games who targeted me, jeered at me, and hit me across the head when no one was looking, just for being there. It’s your professor recommending you choose a less complicated research topic, even if the subject is your area of expertise.
One may argue that the majority of men are not like that, and that most men are fine with women in leadership positions—many even encourage it. But sexism needn’t reside in all men, or most men, or even a lot of men. It only takes one man to make a woman feel as if she is unqualified, out of place, worthless.
I am not an expert in women’s studies; I’m a political science and international relations major. I care about national security, resource sustainability, voting patterns, education, immigration reform. But being a young gay woman of color, it slowly became clear to me that I have no choice but to care about social justice. I have found that our strength is in numbers, and in unity. The more women we have, the more of us can band together and support each other. We need to look out for one another, even if you may not like each other.
Rather than feeling as though we have to compete against each other for that one seat at the table, maybe it’s time we vie for more seats.
Sabrina Dawson is a senior at the University of Utah and perpetual intern. She has worked for Salt Lake City Government, the U.S. Department of State in Washington DC and Morocco, and on Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s 2015 campaign finance team. She sold her soul to the state legislature and is looking forward to replacing water with Redbull for 8 weeks.