The Pulse on Gender Equity in Seattle & Beyond

The Wisdom of the Women Running for Seattle City Council

SeattleMartha BurwellComment

“It’s not just me,” I thought with a feeling of relief as the third city council candidate shared her story of facing discrimination at a former workplace.

“It’s not just me.”

These are incredibly powerful words.  They indicate a shift from blaming oneself for something that’s happened to you, to realizing that it's actually a systematic issue, built into the very foundations of our culture.

When it comes to gender equality, “it’s not just me” can be a transformational moment for women who have experienced things like being underpaid, discriminated against, or workplace harassment. 

Getting to these moments starts with sharing stories, and looking at the issues straight in the eye, which happened Monday night, June 1st, at a panel of women who are running for Seattle City Council.  The women's wisdom shone as they candidly discussed issues that are often tricky to navigate in our culture.

Twelve candidates were present at the WHOW (Women Helping Other Women) women’s empowerment panel, held at Ballard Beer Company.  This included Shannon Braddock (d1), Brianna Thomas (d1), Sally Bagshaw (d7), Tammy Morales (d2), Pamela Banks (d3), Kshama Sawant (d3), Jean Godden (d4), Morgan Beach (d3), Catherine Weatbrook (d6), Halei Watkins (d5), Lorena Gonzáles (d9), Mercedes Elizalde (d5). Monique Taylor-Swan was also present, who recently announced her candidacy for Renton City Council.

(c) Martha Burwell 2015

(c) Martha Burwell 2015

This all-woman event was specifically designed to be non-political, focusing instead on the women as people and as leaders, with questions such as “Tell us about a time when you faced gender or racial discrimination in the workplace;” and “What is a world or national event that influenced your life?”

As the panelists opened up about their lives, many women in the audience were nodding in agreement at what they heard.  One common theme was the intense frustration at not being taken seriously as a professional and a leader.  Like being told it was “so cute” that they were running for city council. When you’re running for office, being “cute is not a compliment” (Brianna Thomas).

Having your competence as a leader repeatedly and undeservedly questioned is nothing trivial—it’s related to the ‘confidence gap’ seen between men and women, and can be extremely tough to overcome.  Halei Watkins put it well when she stated “over and over and over again, I find myself being underestimated….It’s really difficult not to internalize that.”

Over and over and over again, I find myself being underestimated

Another common thread was the drain of constantly having to justify their decision to run for office, because they also have families and jobs.   Male candidates in the same situation do not face as much scrutiny.  The panelists shared how this drain is partly because of the external pressure of “constantly having to justify my parenting” to others (Shannon Braddock) or being repeatedly asked if they are married, and if they have kids, rather than asked about how they would lead the city (Halei Watkins).

But this drain is also about the internal pressure on oneself.  The constant voice in the back of the mind that is asking ‘can I really bring 100% to all my roles?  Should I be doing this?’  Women tend to experience this more often than men, because our culture pressures them to feel like they have to prove that they are upholding both their family and their professional roles.  As Sally Bagshaw put it “There isn’t a guy I know that would say that…They don’t feel they always have to prove themselves.” 

A wonderful aspect of the event was that it allowed us to imagine, what if the City of Seattle achieved gender equality? Seattle, like most cities, has a City Council history of majority male leadership, though there are some notable exceptions.  In life and in politics, people tend to prioritize issues that affect them personally.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—unless the leadership doesn't actually resemble the people they are representing.  Currently, Seattle City Council has 6 men and 3 women.

In life and in politics, people tend to prioritize issues that affect them personally.

Seattle still has a long way to go to achieve gender equality. For example, Jean Godden, a current council member and part of the Seattle Gender Pay Equity Commission, spoke on how Seattle women earn just $0.73 for every dollar that a man makes.  This drops to $0.64 for African American women, and $0.55 for Latinas.  That’s huge.  Seattle is addressing this through an action plan, but imagine how quickly our city could progress on this and other similar issues with more female council members. What a city we would have!

Which brings us to the final theme I’d like to mention—diversity.  It was great to hear from a panel not only of women, but also of diverse races, ages, and backgrounds.  We heard from Lorena Gonzales and her experiences growing up in Eastern Washington, overcoming racial discrimination and poverty, being told “people like you don’t go to college” by her high school counselor, but then succeeding in every way.   Kshama Sawant articulated how she purposefully chooses to dress in a way that represents her culture and background, as well as to emphasize that she is a voice for the voiceless, because “we don’t have enough representatives…for all those people who are oppressed.”   Several candidates also addressed ageism.  In total, 7 of the 13 panelists were non-white, the ages ranged from 26 to 84, and every woman on the panel had a unique background.

In total, 7 of the 13 panelists were non-white, the ages ranged from 26 to 84, and every woman on the panel had a unique background.

This year, for the first time, Seattle is electing City Council members based on district. In fact, this is part of the reason that there are so many female and diverse candidates this year. It may not happen again that we have this chance to revolutionize the city’s leadership.  As you vote for who to lead your district, I urge you to consider how beneficial it would be to elect a diverse Seattle City Council in order to represent our city more fully.  We need to have more “it’s not just me” moments, to address those issues that affect women, minorities, and all the wonderfully diverse people that live here.


(c) Martha Burwell 2015

(c) Martha Burwell 2015

*A shout out to the organizers of the event, WHOW Washington, Heather Bowden, and all the volunteers.  Thank you also to the panelists, who created an inspiring and vivacious conversation.