Originally posted on Forbes.
As things heat up for the 2012 election, I am excited to bring more stories to Forbes that focus on women getting more elected seats. Following my interview with Mindy Finn, political consultant and campaign extraordinaire, I am excited to bring my first interview with an elected representative: Diane Russell.
Diane and I first met when she came across my first post here on More Seats and have since exchanged a number of emails. Inspired by her story and spunk, I am delighted that she was able to sit down and talk about getting more seats (and we are not talking about the ones creepy old guys offer you) and liking the “grizzly mama” mantra that Sarah Palin has made popular. Grrr!
[Photo by Steven Wood]
Name: Diane Russell
Hometown: Bryant Pond, ME (Known for having the last crank phone in the nation; I remember them!)
Current City: Portland, ME
Employer & Job Title: Maine State Representative
Educational Background: BS, University of Southern Maine, 2005 (Media Criticism)
Previous Work Experience: Conference planner, social media guru, PR gal and general political organizer
LB: As of June 2009, women constituted fewer than 17% of the US House of Representatives, only up 4% from the last decade. Why do you believe there is such a slow growth rate in politics versus other professions?
DR: I believe it has to do with how we are cultured. Women often must be asked to run for office because 1. they don’t believe they are qualified or 2. we are cultured not to “toot our own horn,” a prominent necessity in running for office. While women tend to run for office to solve a problem or address an issue, men often run because it’s the next step in their career. This demonstrates how political office feels like the natural “next step” for men whereas it takes a concrete reason for a woman to run for office ~ an extra barrier if you will. Interestingly enough, I ran because I wanted to make sure Mainers could heat their homes and have become a fierce advocate of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Emerge America is working to educate Democratic women interested in politics and foster a mentorship program to help move women into elected office and it is working. Many of the House Democratic women in Maine are Emerge alumna as is Jessica King, Senator-Elect in the WI State Senate.
LB: On a global scale the US ranks 71st out of 189 countries in terms of proportion of women in national legislatures. What do you think the US can do to increase their ranking and bring more women into legislature?
DR: We need mentoring programs. Women need to take better ownership over the career ladders. It’s not enough to simply leave the ladder there, we have to be sending new ladders (even rope ladders!) back down when we get up there. Also, the halls of government should be more open to women once they get there. One older male legislator once joked that if I ever needed a seat, I was more than welcome to sit on his lap. Another said (on mic!) “let me take the only opportunity I have to openly flirt with you” and yet another has a habit of staring openly at my legs “because they’re just so nice.” In what other profession would this be tolerated in this day and age? This did not happen when there were women running the state house in Maine.
LB: Of 2,250 Americans surveyed, about 21% say men make better leaders. What do you think about this statistic? What actions do you think can be taken to reverse this mindset?
DR: Well, thankfully that means 79% don’t! Despite the fact that I categorically disagree with her, Sarah Palin has begun to turn this perceived “weakness” of women around by reminding people of the “mama grizzly.” Women have traditionally been responsible for the raising ~ and protecting ~ of the children. The idea that we are also fierce protectors is important, as is the fact that we are cultured to be the glue that holds a family together. This latter is equally important because true leaders don’t simply look at the immediate issue, they see that issue holistically. Leaders must know when to stand up and when to collaborate; women are cultured to be uniquely adept at both.
LB: Can you tell us about your work with Opportunity Maine?
DR: My favorite work! I was a founding board member of Opportunity Maine, an organization that develops and advocates for smart economic policy. We began as a bunch of young upstarts tired of collapsing under the burden of student loan debt. We developed our own policy ~ the Opportunity Maine Program ~ that guarantees every student who graduates from a Maine college a dollar-for-dollar income tax credit against their student loan payments for every year they stay and work in Maine. We used the citizens initiative process which meant we stood on street corners in the middle of winter collecting signatures to get it on the ballot. Once we earned the signatures, we managed to lobby it straight through the state house with the first unanimous vote from the House of Representatives for a citizen’s initiative in Maine’s history.
It was such a remarkable (and hard!!) initiative because young people, college students, parents and educators worked together to collect the signatures and lobby legislators. It demonstrated first and foremost that indeed, big ideas can be dreamed and executed, but also that young people have power to advocate for change if they choose to do so. Many of our young leaders have since moved into leadership roles across the state. Our next big policy focused on developing jobs through energy efficiency, a policy project that led to the creation of the Efficiency Maine Trust, a government agency solely tasked with helping businesses and homeowners reduce their energy costs.
LB: You’ve changed your Twitter avatar to display the ‘Support the Occupy Movement’ banner. Talk to me more about your take on the movement itself, why you support it and how it impacts women.
DR: The #Occupy movement has finally brought together disparate groups under one “roof” as it were. For too long, groups of people with less representation have been marginalized or worse ~ fighting amongst themselves for an ever shrinking piece of the pie. Many of the economic issues being brought to light through the #Occupy movement disproportionately impact women.
In 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported “About 7 percent of women paid hourly rates had wages at or below the prevailing Federal minimum, compared with about 5 percent of men.” These are federal minimum wage figures; keep in mind many states have higher minimum wages which means the disparity could be larger in the states.
Because women earn less and because two-earner households have higher earnings, families headed by women have far less income than do married-couple families reports the White House in its “Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being” report. While women are dramatically increasing their education attainment, they continue to be paid less than men. This impacts children through fewer opportunities.
All these issues are coming to light through #Occupy. Interestingly enough, though there is another side of #Occupy that is a bit disconcerting. I attended a women’s caucus in a major city recently where women shared their concerns about safety in the encampments. While I’ve not stayed overnight in any of them, these women expressed deep concern over the way they were treated. Sexual harassment was rampant and even a young high school student noted she had been “hit on” by three men who were significantly older. The women began work on a plan to create a safer, more inclusive space where women could participate openly and safely. It got me to thinking about why I had chosen not to camp out. While I had rationalized it in my head that it was the “cold” that had prevented me from doing so, once I started thinking about it I realized it was a concern for safety that was really driving my decision not to camp out. It just goes to show that regardless of what new system people create to try and make the world a better place, there are real issues with gender and safety.
Not only do women attain higher education levels and carry the lion’s share of family responsibility, we earn less money for the privilege, are still discriminated against for being of child-bearing age and must always remain vigilant about our safety. If we’re to build a new American Dream, we should start at the heart stone of our society and change the culture around women.
LB: Did you have any female role models / mentors when growing up? Do you currently have any female role models / mentors?
DR: Oh yes! My first role model was Samantha Smith. She was a 10-year old girl from Maine who sent a letter to the USSR asking why our two countries were in the midst of the Cold War. That letter broke a political impasse and ultimately provided enough space for the political leaders to meet, save face and end the Cold War. She died in a plane crash with her dad at the age of 12, having finished what she came to the Earth to do, but being just a few years younger than her I learned that indeed a young gal from Maine can make a difference on the world.
Since then, I have had myriad role models including my mother, grandmothers, and women who at important times in life took me under their wings and taught me how to fly. My only hope is that I have done the same for others. Who has influenced you most? My best friend taught me to believe in myself and trust my voice. I will always be grateful.
LB: What drives you? What motivates you to get out of bed, stay late and / or work on the weekends?
DR: People. The stories I hear drive me most. The little old lady who told me when I got elected, “You give em HELL up there, don’t settle for nothin’!” and who I saw today on the bus as she was on her way to see her ailing husband in the hospital. Or, the woman who lost her health insurance at work for her and her husband, only to have her husband have a heart attack five months later (after being insured their whole life). Or the Anthem lawyer who kept saying “I object” at their rate increase hearings after listening to the heart-wrenching stories from people suffering with lack of health insurance. He objected because they were not “members.”
The other thing that keeps me going is the inherent kindness I find every day with people. I was stunned by the number of people who came this summer to pick up petitions to stop the repeal of Election Day Registration, a time honored tradition in our state. “I just have to do something.” No one asked them, called them or even sent them a Facebook note. They just showed up. That’s what democracy looks like. What key personal characteristics do you see in yourself that you’ve found especially critical in achieving success?
I’m from Maine; we make do with what we have. That’s the best quality anyone can have.
LB: How would you describe your approach to the world?
DR: I hope.
LB: What magazines, books, newspapers, and/or information sources do you study?
DR: I read voraciously online and off, paying close attention to political web sites, Jezebel (they helped me find the right shoes!), the Nation, HuffPost, Talking Points Memo, etc. I also read historical books. New favorite book book: The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins. You’ll cry, you’ll cheer and you’ll “get it.”
LB: What, if any, distinct traits have you seen fellow female coworkers bring to the workplace? Do you yourself exhibit them? (Why or why not?)
DR: Grace under fire, and no. I don’t have a poker face, but I’m working on it.
LB: What was your first job? What did it teach you that remains with you today?
DR: My first real job was as an administrative assistant at a PR firm in Portland. We dealt with many of the major corporate clients. I was terrible (only 21!), but I learned how to write news releases in AP style, edit, ghost write, copy write ~ all before email was taking off. My boss was hard on me, but kind, thorough and she taught me the core essence of what distinguishes PR from marketing. Everything I write and say has been through that lens ever since. I almost learned something that isn’t really taught these days and I’m so grateful for it.
LB: Did you make assumptions when you first started your career that subsequently proved to be wrong? What sort of insights did you gain?
DR: Oh yes! I believed that if I worked hard, excelled and presented myself professionally that I’d be noticed and move up the ranks. Without mentors to fight for you and guide you, that work could be lost. Many people leave their jobs because their talents were simply not utilized properly or appreciated. I’ve since carved my own path.
LB: What do you like most about what you do?
DR: I love taking a common sense, populist issue and challenging the status quo with it. For instance, I introduced a bill to regulate, tax and legalize marijuana. The science, data and populist sentiment is all there, yet it has been perceived as a “fringe issue.” I turned that on its head and fought for a rational approach to drug regulation. I lost the battle, but I’m still fighting the war.
LB: How do you inspire the people you work with/work for you?
DR: I see them. Too often we overlook people or we don’t validate their contributions. People will walk the ends of the earth with you if you believe in them.
LB: What’s the worst business advice you’ve ever received?
DR: Play by the rules.
LB: What have been the main challenges have you had to overcome in your career? Has gender and / or being a mom been played a role?
DR: I’m unconventional and outspoken. That is not welcome in the traditional patriarchal business environment. As a woman, you’re expected to go with the flow and not rock the boat which means you’ll never climb any ladder. But, if you speak up, call a spade a spade, etc., you’re labeled “difficult,” or “abrasive.” (Often by other women, too!) I never fit into that sort of a box so I found my own path. I now work for a communications company owned by a woman. She loves how I skip the frivolties and get straight to the heart of the matter, and we’re doing quite well adding new clients as a result. Oh, and I can work from home when I want.
LB: What would you do differently if you had to do it all over again?
DR: I’d fall in love more.
LB: What three pieces of advice would you offer young women looking to create a career similar to yours?
1. Don’t play by the rules, they weren’t developed for you.
2. Trust your instincts and your voice. If you start a new job and hate it, move on as soon as possible.
3. Become an expert on something and write like hell about it. It’s so SO easy to get published and it builds remarkable credibility while also opening doors to new opportunities. Don’t be afraid you’re not “smart” enough; just do it.
To keep in touch with Diane, follow her @MissWrite