Our Stories | GenderAvenger Amy Pritchard Brings Positive Change to the AAPC
I never considered myself to be a radical feminist but I do believe that institutional sexism (and racism) is rampant and that the only real way to fix it is to call it out when you see it. But, because it is often accidental and perpetrated by people (read men) with the best of intentions, there can be tremendous pushback. Nothing quite gets people’s hair up on their backs than being called sexist. This is particularly upsetting to those who really aren't sexist in most aspects of their lives. So, often, we say nothing. We ignore it when we see it or feel it, but sometimes the optics are just too painful to ignore. I've found myself in a few of those situations recently.
Just over a year ago I joined the board of the AAPC (American Association of Political Consultants). This bi-partisan organization represents an industry I’ve been part of for many years. I have to admit I was somewhat reluctant to join because I hadn't been an active member previously. I was convinced to join by two board members, both of whom happen to be older white men. Both made points in their pitches that one of the organization’s major goals is to bring in more women and people of color. Their recruitment pitches emphasized how important it is to get more women involved in the organization. They described some of the challenges they faced and went on to say they needed help recruiting more women into the process. This seemed like a noble goal to me and one I would enjoy being part of.
Flash forward a few weeks later. Just after my first board meeting, the Annual AAPC Award dinner was held. The dinner program was a long one with several speakers and presenters. Not one was a woman. Adding insult to that injury, very few of the dozens of recipients were women.
To be clear, political consulting is an industry that like many others is dominated by men, especially white men. Still, significant numbers of women have broken into the profession and many, many on both sides of the aisle are the leaders of their respective niche field. They lead their own firms and work in all of the specialized sectors. There is a critical mass who are part of the leadership, the organization, and most important the profession so at this point there really is no excuse for women to be absent from any event or activity and yet somehow this happens.
Sometimes sexism is subtle. Other times it just slaps you in the face and this event was one of those times. The event sparked a bit of an outcry by my fellow female colleagues, many of whom had been recently recruited. A private email chain that included around 25 of the leading women in the industry went a bit crazy.
I’d like to think I would have spoken up regardless, but my new position on the board put me in the unique position to do something. I took it upon myself after the dinner to inform my male colleagues who were, in fact, the presenters themselves. I told them that the award program that they had worked so hard on was a disappointment because of the lack of women. Their first reaction was embarrassment. I know they didn't even realize what had just happened. The second reaction, after very sincere mea culpas, was to see what they could do to "fix" it and ensure nothing like it could happen again. The situation was taken very seriously. A task force was formed on the board (that I was assigned to) to look closer at the organization and what more could be done to address both organizational and industry issues. A year later at the same conference women are represented on every committee, panel, presentation, and more, and the board is continuing to look for ways to bring in more women. I'm proud that all members of the board and organization were so quick to respond.
The political consulting industry and the AAPC have a long way to go to reach true gender parity, but I know the leaders involved are truly dedicated to that goal, as well as more racial diversity.
Calling out the bad behavior was somewhat controversial. It hurt some feelings and caused more than a bit of defensiveness, but, at the end of the day, it sparked a serious set of positive actions that will have a lasting effect on the organization and, I believe, on the industry as a whole. A year later, women are part of every committee and every panel. Women are still underrepresented in the organization and profession, but I believe that the doors are open and the opportunities are wide and deep for women today. Sometimes the optics of an organization are more important than anything else. Perception, as they say, is far more important than reality at times.