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When politics and gender collide

September 19, 2013
Grace Deason and Rebecca Hannagan

Grace Deason and Rebecca Hannagan

Questions of political psychology and gender were probed Aug. 27 and 28 during a research workshop at NIU-Naperville.

Rebecca Hannagan, a professor in the NIU Department of Political Science, and Grace Deason, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, organized scholars from the fields of political science and psychology who study the various ways in which gender impacts political behaviors.

Research presentations broached topics of intersecting identities such as race, religion, partisanship, sexual orientation and gender and examined how such identities impact the decision to run for office, congressional voting behaviors, perceptions of candidates and leaders and the group dynamics of decision-making bodies.

In addition to research presentations, the goal of the workshop was to build a network of scholars and to provide mentoring to graduate students and junior faculty.

Graduate students represented at the workshop came from various schools and programs including NIU, Yale, Michigan, Duke and the University of Minnesota. Assistant professors and senior scholars represented institutions such as the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, the University of Calgary, Brandeis University and Union College and Princeton.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez participated.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez participated.

Informal networking took place throughout the workshop as conversations over breaks flowed easily from the research panels and discussions.

Organizers also planned mentoring sessions over lunch where graduate students and junior faculty were paired with more-senior scholars to engage in topics such as finding an academic job, attaining tenure, applying for grants and building collaborative networks.

“The workshop was an excellent opportunity to meet with an incredible group of scholars, all of whom are engaged in timely, innovative, and compelling work,” said Alisa Von Hagel, an NIU alumnae and assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

“The most valuable experience was the time set aside for peer mentoring and the willingness of participants to engage in thoughtful and useful dialogue, providing great insight on how to advance within the profession.”

The workshop concluded with a plenary panel featuring Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, Naperville City Councilwoman Judy Brodhead and DuPage County Board member Laurie Nowak. These leaders shared their varied stories about entering public service.

“One of the many reasons I sought office was the lack of women represented on the county board,” said Nowak, who just won her first elective office in November. “Of 18 members, there was only one woman elected when I ran.”

Laurie Nowak

Laurie Nowak

Workshop participants asked members of the panel if they had faced some of the challenges identified in the research literature.

“There certainly are both practical challenges and stereotypical perceptions that can hold women back in ways that do not usually affect men,” Nowak said. “In general though, I think people want women to run, win, and bring a different approach to government. So then it becomes a matter of identifying solutions that empower women and enable a more balanced representation in government.”

To continue the networking and mentoring that began at the workshop, the organizers plan to host a Facebook Group, invite participants to be part of panels at larger conferences, host Google chat sessions to discuss issues in the profession and, perhaps, host another workshop again in the future.