Gender equality in the political sphere with Susan Markham and Stephenie Foster
Gender equality matters. Susan Markham and Stephenie Foster are the founders of Smash Strategies, a firm that provides strategic advice on gender equality and women’s leadership. Susan comes from a background of empowering women to participate in politics both in the U.S. and abroad, recruiting and training women candidates, and supporting the aspirations of thousands of women to be equal and active partners in leading democratic societies. Stephenie has also worked nationally and internationally, engaging women in the economic and political worlds as well as on specific issues such as international rights, peace, and security. The Smash Index, a tool they’ve created, provides voters with a score out of 100 that measures how each 2020 presidential campaign addresses gender equality. We sat down with Susan and Stephenie to talk about their work and this Index:
1. Why did you decide to create the Smash Index? Were you inspired by a particular event, or harrowing statistic?
With our backgrounds in politics, policy and public service, we are interested in ensuring the U.S. domestic and foreign policy reflects input from the broadest group of people possible. We have most recently worked on foreign and development policy, and based on that experience, we are focused on how the U.S. government could implement a Feminist Foreign Policy, which means having more women in decision-making and thinking about how we conduct diplomacy, development, and defense with a gender lens. We created the Smash Index to help presidential candidates think through how they engage women as voters, how they develop policy with a gender lens, and how they treat their staff NOW, well in advance of their election and the transition process.
2. How did you come up with the questions included in the index? Some questions are worth more points toward the final score than others; how did you determine what the weight of a given question is?
There are indices, like the Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index that track the performance of public companies with regard to advancing women globally. Presidential campaigns are multi-million dollar businesses. We thought, “Why not measure the campaigns’ performances along the same lines?” So, we tried to be specific to how campaigns could show their commitment to gender equality in both how they function and in their proposed policy solutions.
For the scoring, we gave big points along a sliding scale for representation. For too long, women have not played leading roles in campaign management and consulting. The policy scoring is more evenly spread out across stand-alone policies that promote women’s empowerment as well as the integration of a gender perspective in issues such as climate change, national security, education, health care, and immigration.
3. What do you hope the incentives for campaigns are to report the truth about their gender equality score? It seems like it would be easy to fabricate results.
Gender issues and the role of women in our society are on the frontline of current policy discussions due to the rise of the #MeToo movement, advocacy around pay equity and increasing the number of women in the C-Suite and on corporate boards, and attacks on women’s reproductive rights. We think campaigns should fill out the Smash Index questionnaire in order to demonstrate that they’ve thought about these issues and want voters to know about it. We think most of the responses to the questions could be verified with public information such as the campaigns’ own websites and the FEC reports.
4. Are there initial and broad-spectrum recommendations you can make for campaigns that have not scored well and are looking to improve?
The recommendations we would make for personnel policy are fairly clear given the questions we ask: have women, including women of color, in decision-making positions; pay staff the same for equal work; have policies that allow all of the staff, regardless of gender, feel safe from online and offline harassment and feel supported if they have family responsibilities or get sick. On the public policy side: have dedicated staff and resources to reach out to women voters of all kinds; address issues that disproportionately impact women, such as access to health care and gender-based violence; but also engage women in issues like foreign policy and trade.
5. Have you thought about opening the Smash Index up to smaller campaigns in the future? Do you envision it expanding beyond the political world?
We would love to expand the index to Senate and House campaigns in the future. Fortunately, there were enough presidential campaigns this cycle to serve as a good test group. As indicated previously, this kind of index already exists in the private sector.
6. How do you plan to publicize results and make voters aware of the information that the Index collects? What impact do you hope the Index will have, both on campaigns and on voters?
We are partnering with other organizations (to be named soon) that will educate voters in key states about the results of the index. There are several great groups focused on mobilizing around these issues for 2020. The Index is a great tool for the campaigns to demonstrate their support of these issues as well as a resource for voters who want to see the evidence, beyond rhetoric, of the campaigns’ support.
7. How would you advise young women starting out in politics to hold employers and campaigns accountable to gender equality?
Everyone who works in politics – regardless of age, race, or sex – should make sure to ask questions about policies related to gender equality. The good news is that campaigns and other political organizations are more open to these issues.
BONUS QUESTION: On your website, you have a list of questions leaders and executives can ask themselves to ensure that they’re investing in a long-term plan toward gender equality. Is there a general plan structure that you believe to be most effective – i.e. tackling technical issues, such as obtaining certain certifications and signing on to commitments, first and moving on to more ideological issues, such as reimagining processes and actively positioning your work to promote gender equality, later?
There is not a one-size-fits-all plan for businesses and other kinds of organizations with regard to gender equality. We want people to start conversations. From there, it is easier to see how individuals and institutions can adjust the way they “do business” in order to work toward gender equality and actually be more effective in their work, whether that is selling more widgets or electing more candidates.
SECOND BONUS QUESTION: What is a book you have read on gender and inclusion that you would recommend?
Who can pick just one?
The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates that explains what she's learned working in poverty-stricken communities around the world and gives the reader insight into her personal life/learning on this topic.
Men Explain Things to Me is a short book of essays by Rebecca Solnit that describe familiar female experiences to those not focused on gender.
Sex and World Peace or anything else by Valerie Hudson – she and her colleagues draw connections between issues that many previously did not connect – such as polygamy and radicalization.
Thank you to Susan Markham and Stephenie Foster for participating in our 7 Questions series this week!