Closing the gender gap in civic and political engagement

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The College of Health and Human Development's Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) and the Penn State Presidential Leadership Academy (PLA) recently held a joint session with All In Together, a nonpartisan organization that aims to close the gender gaps in civic and political engagement.

The workshop gave students insight into how government works at the local, state and federal levels, who represents them, and how to most effectively influence the political system. The program also helped students identify which political issues were most important to them and how to turn difficult political conversations with opposing views into productive, learning conversations.

Courtney Emerson, co-founder of All In Together, facilitated the event held in the Ruth Pike Auditorium in the Biobehavioral Health Building at University Park.

“Research also shows that women in college are less likely to talk about politics than their male counterparts,” Emerson said. “If women aren’t using their voice and speaking up about the issues they care about, if we aren’t fully engaging, how can our representatives effectively represent us?”

Abigail Diehl, assistant dean and director of the WLI, hopes the program helped students better understand how they can practice leadership through civic engagement and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

“I think often students have limited experience with civic engagement or politics. For many students, their political views and ideas about politics come from their parents. For many, ‘politics’ has a negative connotation,” Diehl said. “I think it’s important to have these types of events to demonstrate that students can make a difference by contacting their representatives, getting involved at the local level, and talking with others about political issues.”

Alexis Jefferson, a WLI member who is studying nursing and child maltreatment and advocacy, said the program provided her with practical ways to get involved in civic and political matters and a better understanding of what it means to be civically active.

“The seminar taught me the importance of being civically engaged in relation to being a leader, due to the fact that becoming civically engaged means you are standing up for what you believe in,” Jefferson said. “By doing so, you could be opening the door for others to also become involved. It becomes a form of innate leadership by advocating for something close to you, or by leading others to fight for what you collectively believe.”

Chelsea Fagan, a WLI member who is studying kinesiology, said the program helped her better understand the interworking of local, state and federal governments. 

“I also learned all of the different ways that I can make myself heard in each level of government, and what strategies I can use to be most efficient and effective in my civic engagement,” Fagan said. “The main takeaway from the presentation was that I have all the tools I need right now to be much more engaged politically than I currently am.”

Melissa Doberstein, director of PLA at Penn State, hopes the program expands dialogue and encourages students to become more politically active.

“This event provided students with tools to engage in civic action and discourse to assist them in their leadership development. My hope is that students develop confidence to give voice to issues they are passionate about,” Doberstein said.

“I really enjoyed the event and appreciate that I, as a male, was welcome to attend," said Jordan Smith, a member of PLA who is studying mechanical engineering. "It was an experience which really helped to give me a different perspective on some pressing issues in today’s politics. I would definitely attend a similar event in the future.”

Madeline Rossman, a PLA graduate assistant who is studying higher education and student affairs, said “I came away with an action plan: who to contact in my government and how to best express my opinions to them. I understand now the power of local government and the importance of not only attending town hall meetings but also speaking up.

WLI is a program for female students in the Colleges of Health and Human Development and Nursing. The initiative provides opportunities for emerging women leaders to develop the core values, attitudes and competencies that are the foundation of quality leadership.

The PLA helps students develop leadership fundamentals to thrive in an environment in which multiple dimensions of an issue are explored, diverse viewpoints are welcomed and heard, and a fully informed and respectful discourse ensues that leads to sound action.

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Last Updated February 21, 2017