UMass Women into Leadership looks to fight the gender gap

By Eleanor Harte

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Undergraduate women at the University of Massachusetts who seek careers in public service will soon have a program devoted to helping them reach their goal.

UMass Women into Leadership, a new program through the Department of Political Science, aims to reduce the gender gap in public service through networking, mentorships and professional development programming.

“UWiL is designed to give our current students the skills and confidence they need to succeed in the public sector – not only as high quality workers, but as powerful leaders,” executive director Michelle Goncalves said.

Goncalves said she first got the idea for the program at a networking event through the political science department held a few years ago where the majority of the attendees and the speakers were male.

She said she quickly noticed the gender disparity, as well as the fact that the male and female attendees approached the networking opportunity differently. Soon, she had an idea for a program she hopes will fill an important gap on campus.

“Whether they want to run for office, seek a cabinet appointment or serve as a senior staffer, our trainees will gain the skills, support, knowledge and networks they need to pursue a path of leadership in public office,” said Christina M. Knowles, co-chair of the Board of Directors and a UMass alumna.

The program is open to any female undergraduate, regardless of major, class, year or political ideology. Goncalves is specifically looking for a wide variety of students to apply to the program.

“We hope that our cohort of students reflect the diversity of political opinions on campus,” she said.

UWiL will consist of a one-credit class with academic readings and assignments and a hands-on portion involving a weekend skill-building workshop, facilitated networking opportunities and the mentorship of UWiL board members, many of whom are UMass alumni. The program will bring together a group of women interested in furthering their leadership capabilities and give them the tools and people to help them do so.

“Encouraging more women to enter politics is the passion of these women and they were very eager to help out,” Goncalves said. “In many ways, the board reflects the skills UWiL students will gain through the program – political fundraising, communication, lobbying, campaign management, elected office and more.”

An ideal student for the program is not necessarily heavily involved with politics or public service. Goncalves stressed that students who haven’t been involved within the campus can still possess the skillsets to make them good leaders.

“The ideal applicant will be interested in building her skillset, learning about public service and want to enter the political arena after graduation,” Goncalves said.

The program’s launch comes at a time when women’s equality is increasingly in the news, from the existence of “Women’s Equality Day” to Beyonce’s feminist-emblazoned performance at the Video Music Awards. The national conscience has never been more in tune to this issue, and yet, Goncalves said she thinks the right time for this program would have been several years ago.

“When I talk to alumni about UWiL their response is always, ‘I wish that existed on campus when I was there,’” Goncalves said. Alumni have been crucial to helping Goncalves transform the program from an idea raised in a board meeting to a functioning program, especially financially, since it isn’t feasible for the University to fully fund the program each year.

Michaelah Morrill is co-chair of the Board of Directors and as an alumna herself, heavily involved with the UMass Political Science Department.

“Women aren’t projected to have a 50 percent majority in Congress until 2121, despite being 50 percent of the population,” Morrill said. “As a society we can do better than that – and UMass and UWiL can help.”

Goncalves said she hopes to one day see the program listed on the resumes of the top leaders in the state.

“As the state’s flagship campus, I think we have a responsibility to train our students to be effective public leaders,” she said. “Leaders who understand public education and can be a lasting presence in the political world.”

Applications are due Oct. 15, and the program will begin in the spring semester.

Eleanor Harte can be reached at [email protected]