I found out about PLEN and the Women in Public Policy seminar during the last semester of my graduate program in Public Affairs. Although I had the fortune of working with wonderful female professors during my academic career, I was excited to have found an organization dedicated to empowering women in such a practical way: through professional training and networking. I quickly found out how to enroll in the seminar and three weeks later I traveled over 1,500 miles to interact with women from around the country interested in changing the world through policy.
The week I spent in D.C. was truly transformational in more than one way. After having spent a few years interacting with local and state governments in different parts of the country, I had come to believe that the women in the policy world were few and only worked on a handful of topics. i.e. education, social welfare, health. The Women in Public Policy Seminar completely changed my mind. We were introduced to women working on issues of tax law, security policy, and climate change, among many others. Lesson #1: women can and do work in all areas of policy!
Similarly, I had planned my career thinking of a “career ladder” or linear path that I wanted to follow. I would begin as a legislative advisor. Then, I would become director of policy, then chief of staff, and so on. Nonetheless, the women at PLEN made clear that their careers had not been that linear and that one must make lateral (or even downward) moves in order to get to where one can have the most impact. Lesson #2: it’s not a career ladder; it’s a career lattice.
In school and at professional conferences, I often struggled to network. I felt I had to somehow become really close to someone before asking for any favors, especially recommendation letters or informational interviews. One of the most amazing, empowering, and inspiring things I learned at the Women in Public Policy seminar is that most professionals want to support young people in navigating the professional world. Lesson #3: people want to help! Seeing all the panelists volunteering time out of their busy schedules to speak to us and being so willing to hand out their business cards was humbling and reassuring.
Attending the Women in Public Policy seminar changed my perspective in many ways. But most importantly, it opened up a world in which female policy leaders are ready to invest in a new generation of women hoping to serve the public.
Martha Bohrt attended the 2016 Women in Public Policy seminar as a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.