Emerson co-founded the All In Together Campaign in 2014 to close the most critical gender gaps in political and civic engagement and to ensure American women have access to the tools they need to have power and influence equal to their numbers. Formerly a VP at global think tank Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), Emerson co-led Levers to Leadership, CTI’s proprietary women’s leadership program. She has been a featured speaker at numerous Fortune 500 companies, the YWCA of NYC, Council for Urban Professionals, Venture for America, as well as colleges and universities. Emerson graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University.
We sat down with her ahead of her presentation at the Women In Enterprise Summit, taking place in Boston this October 25-26.
What drove you to help encourage women into politics?
When Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” came out in 2013, the conversation around women’s leadership in the private sector exploded. At the time, I was working at Center for Talent Innovation, a think tank that conducts research exploring the barriers for underrepresented groups in the workplace, and we definitely felt the renewed energy around how companies could help close the gender gaps in leadership. It was an exciting time. But, I was a politics major in school and couldn’t help but feel that the focus on women in the private sector — as important as that was and continues to be - was not the full picture when it came to channels of leadership in the United States. Political engagement and leadership is a crucial part of the conversation when it comes to women’s leadership but was missing from the national narrative. My Co-Founders and I felt that conversation needed to happen, especially given the enormous gender gaps we see in political engagement and the fact that we were about to head into a presidential election. While women are more likely than men to vote, they’re less likely to donate to political campaigns, write letters or make phone calls to their representatives, talk about politics, or run for office. These are the gaps we’re working to close.
What challenges did you face in setting up All In Together? Do you think these challenges would still be there if you started from fresh today?
Starting anything new is really hard! But because we’re bipartisan (we believe that if you think women’s voices should be amplified in our political process, you believe that whether or not you agree or disagree with their points of view), we got some pushback early on that it would be impossible for us to build a movement across party lines and without putting a stake in the ground on issues. We stuck to our guns that this could be a bipartisan conversation and I’m very glad we did. Research shows that women are more effective lawmakers because they’re more likely to reach across the aisle and work with people who don’t always share their same views - not to mention the fact that the polarization of politics today is precisely why many women don’t want to get involved. At a time when partisanship in our government has reached an all-time high, we need more women involved - both Democrats and Republicans - and to do that, the conversation about getting involved politically must be inclusive of every point of view. Rather than a weakness, this has turned out to be an incredible strength of our approach.
What do you think are the main factors preventing women becoming political leaders? How do you think these can be resolved?
While women are more likely than men to vote, women are less likely to be encouraged to use their voices: to have a point of view and advocate for it. In addition, women are less likely than men to see politics as a way to drive positive change in their communities and more likely to work for change through charities and non-profits. We need to ensure women see their full political engagement as an essential component of creating greater gender equality in the U.S., not just as a “nice to do.” We need more women’s voices — if not, we’ll continue to see policies enacted that don’t represent or reflect the priorities of women.
Do you think Hillary Clinton’s nomination will change the way both women are perceived within politics, and how young women perceive the chances of success?
Absolutely - there’s some really interesting research out there that shows that when women are in positions of political leadership (on both sides of the aisle), women are more likely to get involved politically in almost every way, including running for office. Role models are crucial: as the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see. It’s also important to recognize that Hillary Clinton had some extraordinary women paving the way for her: Shirley Chisholm, Victoria Woodhull, Margaret Chase Smith, Geraldine Ferraro, and many, many others.
What advice would you give to young women looking to enter politics?
There are so many ways to get involved in politics - you don’t have to wake up one day and decide to run for office (although you certainly can!). Learn who your representatives are (local and federal) and where they stand on the issues. Attend a local town hall. Call your representative’s office to tell their staff about an issue that matters to you or even schedule a meeting with them (you can actually do all of these things on the All In Together website). Volunteer for a campaign (even a local one) or work for a representative (women are still way underrepresented in key staff positions like Chief of Staff and Legislative Director). Write an op-ed to your local paper about an issue that’s been on your mind. There really are endless possibilities! But above all, speak up and speak out about the issues that matter to you.
You can hear more from Marisa, along with other leading women in enterprise, at the Women In Enterprise Summit. To register, click here.