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Being inspired by the White House Project: NYC visit August 2009

Last week I had the good fortune to be in New York at the same time as one of the White House Project WOLF information events. Julie Gilbert and Marie Wilson kindly said that I could come along, to observe and see how where they are with their work can inform what The Downing Street Project is doing in its early and stumbling stages.

I took copious notes and thought I’d outline them here to give you a sense of what Marie Wilson was sharing about The White House Project, why it was started and what keeps it going, I originally got the idea for Downing Street Project by reading Marie’s book so it’s relevant how they are, 10 years down the line. Here are some highlights from her talk.

The White House Project (WHP) is now 10 years old and has put 7,000 women through its training, designed to encourage them to run for office in the USA. They want to have trained a total of 36,000 by 2013. Their mission is to reach a critical mass of women in leadership positions, by bringing more women to the tables of power.

Marie Wilson started out at the Ms Foundation and was responsible for the ‘take our daughters to work day’ which encouraged the girls to question their mothers roles and the parity of pay and status effects. Since then they have found that more and more women are being trusted to lead alongside men. The WHP have new research coming out in the autumn of this year that shows that women are trusted to lead in all domains, other than risk taking. Given that this particular quality is being blamed for the current financial crisis its seen as a positive.

The WHP has found that women bring something different to the table in terms of leadership but they come with some central questions. ‘How can I be a political leader and still have a family? And ‘How can I keep my integrity?’. Questions that people are asking in the UK now in the midst of the expenses scandal and the large numbers of MP’s stepping down at the next election.

The WHP spent the first 5 years backing up their claims with research; hopefully we can make use of this in our work. The training was designed to demystify the process of holding political office in the USA. Women did not want to be made to feel guilty about not leading rather they wanted to make a difference. They wanted their friends to run too as the WHP found that there has to be a certain number of women in leadership positions in order for each individual women not to have to fight for her place and voice amongst the dominant paradigm.

A central theme of the training is that women need to be encouraged to be ambitious. They found that it’s not lack of skills that is the problem, its lack of confidence. Having authority is seen as problematic for women. They discuss under what conditions we allocate authority to each other and to men, etc. At the training they needed to convince women that its OK to have authority.

There are 4 A’s that underlie the training of The WHP and they are: Authenticity, Ability, Ambition and Authority. They feel that women have the right instincts and are totally capable of leadership but something happens at adolescence when its drained out of us. Worth looking at as we get younger people involved in DSP.

I was then lucky enough to hear all the trainers talk the group through the individual training programs and what the women learn on those. Not for a general post but this can get fed into the training teams work for the WOLF project. There is a Go Run training on Oct 9th which I’d love to be at, time and money allowing.

Overall I found the entire experience very inspiring indeed. The WHP is 10 years ahead of the Downing Street Project and it took a few years to get the training up and running. This makes me feel a lot better about where we are at the end of year one. I was inspired by the mood of the room, by the positivity of the women. The WOLF teams had concerns about the scope of their projects, as ours do too and there was a real sense of aiming to create something meaningful, which ours do too. What was most exiting was to see that the organisation has stayed alive all these years, had found a way to be able to offer these training programmes for women and has made a difference. I wonder what DSP will look like 10 years down the line and how we will have made it work as we head into the unknown political landscape of the UK in 2010.

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