The N.E.W. Way

Features: June/July 2010~ It’s a seemingly simple solution. Need more women in leadership roles? Then hire more of them, right?


According to Kelly Thornburg, coordinator of Iowa N.E.W. Leadership, an intense six-day workshop for young women, much more diversity and many more women are needed to help find innovative solutions for modern problems.

Thornburg said many young people are facing “Renaissance syndrome,” or the need to be good at everything, which in turn causes the depth of many topics to be overlooked.

“There’s not a lot of time to get to know themselves and say ‘This is what I’m about,’” Thornburg said of college students today. “What we want to do with N.E.W., we want to build in more of that time–so they can think, ‘Why was I attracted to this in the first place?’”

What Thornburg hopes the 34 participants take away from the annual workshop is a way to redirect their lives into the goal of leadership roles.

It’s more than holding a public office, or even being elected, she said, it’s about being passionate about advocacy and a mission, and getting themselves back in the game.

Iowa’s already trying to close the gender gap that exists on many boards and commissions, with Governor Chet Culver having 20 state boards and commissions with openings, including the Iowa Arts Council and Iowa Humanities Board.

Across the state, boards and commissions on the college level have also made a push to attract women and men to serve alongside each other.

“What’s so important about bringing women and diversity to the table is we need as many points of view as possible,” Thornburg said, including that people of different ethnicities and backgrounds ought not to be left out of the discussions.

“I feel like the crises that we’re seeing in so many sectors are leading me to believe and many of the presenters that they want things to change. They want things to look and feel different, and they want things to be better,” Thornburg said. “They’re hesitant to come to the table but they feel compelled, but often don’t know where to start–because it’s so daunting.”

That’s where the N.E.W. Leadership institute steps in. With women from The University of Iowa, nominated by peers and faculty, and young women from other schools in the nation, the workshop lets them communicate with other women who want to go after the same goals, and connects them with professionals who are trying to recruit young women to become active participants in their communities.

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“We are really looking at how you can best represent your state or organization. The boards and commissions piece is a great way to get started,” Thornburg said. “What we want them to do is start building, getting those skills and building those networks as early as possible if they do run for office or a position that puts them in a good light. It will give them a good sense of themselves and let them know where they stand in their communities.”

According to the Women’s Resource & Action Center N.E.W. Leadership website, the program started by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in 1991, the non-partisan program is conducted at 18 universities nationwide. The University of Iowa joined the network in 2007. This year’s keynote speaker is Dr. Nancy ‘Rusty’ Barceló, Vice President and Vice Provost for Equity and Diversity at the University of Minnesota.

The course of the six-day program, which runs from June 4-9 at the UI, includes discussion on cultural diversity, the importance of public leadership, wage negotiation, philanthropy and building relationships in your community.

Usually for undergraduate women, Thornburg said five graduate students were accepted this year. And while previous years encouraged public office, the definition has been broadened to nonprofit, advocacy, state government and municipal boards.

Thornburg said many Iowa Boards of Supervisors, city councils and other local entities are seeking young minds–and women–to join.

“A lot of studies have been released that have shown an increase in productivity and innovation when women are brought in to the workplace,” Thornburg said.

But even with women finding opportunities in the workplace, and definitely becoming more active in labor than three decades ago, a 2007 U.S. Census Bureau report revealed that in Iowa, wage disparity between men and women can be anywhere between $9,000 and $22,000 per year.

And that’s just one more reason Thornburg wants to see women take an active part in the communities they live and the businesses of which they’re a part.

“I think we’re so used to talking about affirmative action–which is valid, but not to just try to get the numbers up,” Thornburg said. “We’re starting to see what is happening when women are functioning at mid-level management, but we want to know what happens when they’re at the top.”