“Women’s” Issues? It’s all in the message.

It’s a beautiful late summer Saturday afternoon and over 300 people are willingly cloistered in hearing rooms in Connecticut’s state capitol building. As part of a national initiative called “Vision 2020”, Connecticut’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Women presented a conference to convene allies and women leaders from across the state with the goal of advancing women’s equality by the year 2020 – the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote.

Here are the highlights:

In the morning, I tell my daughters where I am going.  “Hey,” says my eleven-year-old, “did you know that there was once this woman who did the same job as a man but didn’t get paid as much as he did?”  I’m thrilled that this is even on her radar, and her sense of injustice seems appropriate. So I clue her in that it’s “actually more than one woman” and then I’m out the door.

At the Capitol, I am honored to participate on a panel with elected officials and community leaders to discuss the most effective ways to message women’s issues.  We talk a lot about the mechanics of messaging; why you need to simplify your message, find the right target audience, choose your messengers with care and then find the most effective “channels” or delivery mechanisms. I give the advocates in the room the same advice I give my clients; if it’s important enough to talk about, it’s important enough to prepare for. We talk a lot about repetition and patience. Since its political season, it’s easy to illustrate how you need to hit people over and over with the same message before it registers.

I can’t help but raise my underlying concern with the very title of our panel, “Messaging Women’s Issues to Engage all Constituencies.”  Maybe it’s simply how we talk about the issues that is different, not the issues themselves. For example, research shows us that when we talk about “education” in terms of classroom size or teacher quality, it resonates with women. But if we talk about education in terms of workforce development and the economy, men respond. But so do women. So is education a women’s issue? Probably not.

Furthermore, are there really “women’s issues?” Or is it just that there aren’t enough women in elected office to qualify as part of the regular debate?  On a recent PBS NewsHour segment, U.S. Senator, and GSG client, Kirsten Gillibrand responded to a question about health care as a “women’s issue.”  She responded that “If we had 51 percent of women in Congress, do you think we’d be debating birth control?”  Maybe some women’s issues wouldn’t even be “issues” if there were enough of us at the table.  And maybe equal pay for equal work would be as much of a no-brainer as “would you like ice cream with that?”

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