If women make over half of the population in the United States, then why are there only about 20 percent of them in Congress? This is a question that George Mason University alumni Rebecca Dooley and Danielle Melton, both Class of 2018 alumni of the Schar School of Policy and Government’s Bachelor of Arts in Government and International Politics degree program, found themselves grappling with two years ago while they were finishing up their studies.
“The problem is not that we have ineffective [female] leaders, it’s that we have far too few of them. Women make up only 19.6 percent of Congress. This means 19.6 percent of Congress is supposed to represent 50 percent of the population. That doesn’t add up,” said Dooley.
And when they looked around them, they found that few people were paying attention to the potential in young college women to become future political leaders.
“Through my own experiences and the shared experiences of my friends, I realized that there was a problem with empowering women [to pursue] leadership positions,” Melton said. “I looked for ways that I could personally support women to embrace their ambition—especially political ambition—and support them in taking on leadership positions.”
Dooley and Melton teamed up to found the first ever George Mason University Women’s Leadership Conference in 2017. They also organized the first Women’s Leadership Networking Luncheon in the spring. For their efforts they won the inaugural Gender and Policy Leadership Award. The trophies were presented to them during the annual Schar School alumni gala in May.
“We wanted to encourage our female peers to speak up more in class, take the lead on a group project, run for president of a university organization—and most importantly, we wanted to remind them that their ideas and opinions are valid,” said Dooley.
“Initiatives like these are key to empowering the next generation of women leaders” by providing a platform to discuss the important ways in which gender and policy influence politics, she added.
Dooley and Melton met in their freshman year and bonded over their mutual passion for politics and feminism. For this initiative, they partnered with Mason and received sponsorship from the Honors College that helped bring their idea to fruition.
“Not only did we develop the idea for the conference, but we also executed the plans from start to finish—we developed and implemented marketing strategies and coordinated all logistics,” said Dooley.
The conference, held on Mason’s Fairfax, Virginia Campus last fall, attracted more than 100 audience members. Speakers including Delaware Lt. Governor (and Mason alumna) Bethany Hall-Long, and Mason Associate Professor Wendi Manuel-Scott.
Following this success, Dooley and Melton partnered with the Schar School’s Gender and Policy Initiative (GAP), working closely with professor Bonnie Stabile, founder of the initiative and program director of the Schar School’s Master of Public Policy program.
In collaboration with the Gender and Policy Initiative, Dooley and Melton also hosted a follow-up networking lunch so that female students and faculty could become better acquainted and foster mentorship opportunities.
“Danni and I are both so passionate about gender issues and women’s leadership, and receiving this award validated these passions and our work. I am so grateful for the Schar School, the Gender and Policy Initiative, and Dr. Stabile for helping develop and shape my interests and the skills I need to pursue them,” said Dooley.
“Young women also need to have access to relatable role models who can support and sponsor them in the future. I hope that the women’s conference and leadership lunches will [continue to] provide these skills and opportunities,” said Melton.