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Involving more women in leadership: ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’

Panel of female Idaho state legislators speaks at the
Panel of female Idaho state legislators speaks at the "Go Lead Idaho" conference at BSU on Saturday. (Betsy Russell)

More than 100 women gathered at Boise State University over the weekend for the third annual “Go Lead Idaho” conference, aimed at getting more women involved in leadership and civic participation in Idaho. “It’s amazing how easy it is to get elected,” longtime state Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, told the group to laughter. “I just knew that I was tired of working for someone that said he wasn’t going to work.” Bell advised the women, “Don’t say something you don’t mean. Plan on working.” And, she added, “Honor can always be with you.”

Reps. Kelley Packer, R-McCammon, and Holli High Woodings, D-Boise, joined Bell on that panel; other speakers included female corporate CEOs and law firm partners, a women’s leadership expert, and keynote speaker former Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts, who pointed to the conference’s slogan, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Growing up in a rural Oregon town, she said, she saw no examples of women leaders around her; no women held elective office in her community, none were on the news, none held influential jobs. It was as a Girl Scout working on a merit badge in women’s history that she went to her local library and read about women like Susan B. Anthony and Eleanor Roosevelt. “This knowledge can literally change our self-expectations,” Roberts said.

She shared the story of how she went from low-income, divorced mother of two, including an autistic son, to governor of the state – she started by advocating for education for her son at a time when there were no educational rights for children with disabilities like autism. Roberts bemoaned the fact that 14 states – including Idaho – still have all-male congressional delegations, and noted that while Idaho this year jumped up to 27 percent women in its state House, there are only five women serving in its state Senate and none in statewide office. “Keep doing what you did in the last legislative session in the House – you’re on your way,” she told the crowd.

Go Lead Idaho is a nonpartisan, volunteer organization working to “heighten the role of women in leadership and policy-making roles in public office, boards and commissions, private industry and non-profits;” there’s more info here. According to research by BSU's College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs, women are particularly underrepresented on private boards in Idaho.

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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