The White House Project: Promoting Women Leaders in the Public and Private Sectors

iStock_000004638435XSmall[1]By Elizabeth Harrin (London)

“When we started there was absolutely no attention paid to how stuck women’s leadership was in the US,” says Marie Wilson, founder and President of The White House Project.  That was 1998. Today, she says, “people actually care about women’s leadership.”

The White House Project aims to advance women’s leadership in all communities and sectors—up to the U.S. presidency—by filling the leadership pipeline with a richly diverse, critical mass of women. Wilson’s objective was to help foster a representative democracy, with women leading alongside men in all areas of life. The last decade has seen The White House Project become a leading voice on women’s leadership.

Wilson has a long history of advocacy for women’s roles in public life. She was the first woman elected to the Des Moines City Council as a member-at-large in 1983. She co-wrote Mother Daughter Revolution ten years later. She spent nearly twenty years heading up the Ms. Foundation for Women and she served as an official government delegate to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China in 1995. Now she has turned her attention to the top job: putting a woman in the White House.

In practice, The White House Project does more than just campaign to get women into top political roles. “We operate along several tracks simultaneously, with research and training being the primary foci of the organization,” explains Wilson.  “One of our first research projects, ‘Who’s Talking,’ looked at the dearth of women on the Sunday shows.  It was right after 9/ll and even though women headed up relevant congressional committees, they were outnumbered by males in guest appearances on the five most important Sunday talk shows eleven to one, and some women leaders were never interviewed.”

Why We Need More Women Leaders in the Media

Wilson’s team challenged the Sunday Shows that shape leadership in the US to put more women on as guests. “Over time we have made progress,” she says.  “But there’s less progress in the leadership within the news and media arenas. What is seen in front of the camera is both caused and reflected by the dearth of women behind the camera.”

Behind the scenes of situation comedies, dramas, and reality shows in the 2007-08 prime time television season, women made up less than one-quarter (23 percent) of all creators, directors, executive producers, and producers. “That is a 4 percent increase from a decade earlier,” says Wilson.  “In particular, women fared best as producers (37 percent), followed by writers (23 percent), but did not do as well in the higher-level roles of creators (22 percent), executive producers (22 percent), editors (17 percent), directors (11 percent), and directors of photography (1 percent). When women achieve parity as production executives and helmers of television productions, the images of women that are projected on our television and film screens will become more positive, realistic and diverse.”

Training Women Leaders

The White House Project is also heavily involved with training programs for women who are considering standing for public office. “Our core, primary work is to conduct trainings around the country through our Vote, Run, Lead programs,” says Wilson.  “Our Go Run trainings are a weekend long, dedicated to equipping women, the future candidates, with the skills to run and win.”

The training days aim to demystify the political process and inspire a richly diverse group of women in to the leadership pipeline. Seven thousand women have taken part in training sessions, and Wilson considers the target audience a particular success. The classes have been attended by “women who would not have ever considered running for office: young women, women of different racial and ethnic minorities and women across the class spectrum,” she explains.  “We have made it popular to live a political life.  ‘Go Run’ provides the nuts and bolts of running for political office by focusing on areas like communications, fundraising, and campaigning – skills women can use in their work and in their community up to the day you decide to run!”

This is a key benefit of The White House Project: even if the women then decide not to stand for office they have still learned valuable skills that will help them in their business and community lives. Politics might be the overarching goal, but underlying that is a real desire to get women into leadership jobs of all kinds, in all industries.

“We have used new ways to make women visible and pioneered the importance of popular culture as a vehicle for important change, explains Wilson. One of the organisation’s successes has been to work with toy company Mattel to put out a ‘President Barbie’ in all races every four years, co-branded with The White House Project.  It might sound odd, but the best way of challenging stereotypes is to get to girls young and show them at an early age that women have a part to play in all walks of life.

Upcoming Study – Changing the Game with Women’s Leadership

“In November, we will be releasing a groundbreaking study entitled ‘The White House Project Report: Benchmarking Women’s Leadership,’” says Wilson. “This report is a never-before- compiled analysis of where women stand in leadership roles in ten of the top professional sectors in the US, with specific recommendations from experts in each sector on how to implement changes to achieve a critical mass of women in that sector.”

And when all those changes are implemented? It would be great if Wilson’s initiatives put her out of a job. “While reaching a critical mass of women in all sectors, from business to politics and beyond is one of the goals of The White House Project, there will always be a need for women to come together to network, learn from each other and work for change,” says Wilson.  “We believe that women take charge to take care, meaning that the fundamental issues that affect our society, be it health care, children’s rights, pay equity, will always need strong advocacy and a female perspective.” It’s taken a long time to get where we are, but Wilson and her team are passionate about what The White House Project can achieve. “We really believe that if you add women, you change everything,” she says, “and now others do as well.”