Women in Politics Feel Like We Can’t Say “I Don’t Know.” Here’s Why We Have to.
By Jessica Kelly, Running Start Chief of Staff
As much as I hate to admit it (and as much as my little sister will be shocked to hear me admit this), I don’t know everything.
It feels vulnerable to admit what you don’t know and ask for help. Women leaders (and other folks who don’t look like those who have traditionally been in power) can feel pressure to appear as though we know everything. We tend to over-prepare, so we don’t ever have to say “I don’t know,” and risk being seen as unqualified.
But as I was recently reminded, saying “I don’t know” is when the magic happens.
Last month, Running Start staff spent two days straight asking for help, and it was incredible. We were fortunate enough to be chosen by WAKE International for a Tech2Empower Impact Fellowship, where 10 women from the tech sector came to DC to learn about our work and advise us on a variety of tech projects we were struggling with.
The staff of Running Start have a lot of strengths and skills. I could write a whole blog post on each person and the amazing things they bring to the table. But collectively, we lack expertise in some areas, like data management, user experience design, and email marketing.
Getting advice on those topics (and more) from a group of women who work in those fields for a living was a huge privilege. Now, Running Start has a list of new tech tools that will make our lives easier and concrete next steps to bring our work to the next level. But more importantly, we also have a brand new community of women who are invested in our work and want to help us change the face of politics.
As part of the Fellowship, we even invited other women in politics organizations to come together at an event and share a “pain point,” or something their organization struggles with, so that the visiting experts could offer advice. It was unusual to have an event where people shared their struggles and asked for help — normally we only share successes in such a public forum.
It got me thinking about how running for and serving in office means getting used to asking for help constantly.
When running, you need to ask for volunteers, donations, and votes. No one can run for office alone. Once in office, every elected official has a team who rounds out her knowledge. No one person can know the details on every issue — so much so that electeds have entire legislative teams to divide the work.
I encountered this idea again only a few days ago.
Every Friday, during our weekly leadership sessions with the Running Start/Walmart Congressional Fellows, one Fellow starts the day off by giving a report about a piece of legislation that is coming up in Congress. The goal is to help one another stay up to date on what’s happening on the Hill, so they can be the best Congressional interns they can be. Last week, the resident engineer of the group gave an illuminating talk about a bill regarding energy storage facilities (watch out for Leela’s future YouTube series explaining complicated science for policymakers, as I am currently trying to convince her to make one).
After the incredible engineering lesson, another Fellow reflected on how beneficial it is to have people in office who come from specific career backgrounds, like engineering, healthcare, or education. She worried that she didn’t have deep expertise in anything the way Leela did in engineering, but rather a little bit of knowledge on a lot of things, and wondered aloud about her qualifications to run.
I had barely opened my mouth to respond when the rest of her cohort jumped in with supportive and wise advice. “You don’t need to be an expert,” one person said. “You’ll know how to bring together a team to support you where you need it — every Member of Congress does.” Even at the very beginning of their careers, in their early 20s, these young women already know that being authentic and vulnerable is what is going to make them successful.
Essentially, everyone needs to ask for help, even at the pinnacle of their career. It’s humbling to admit what you don’t know, but amazing things happen when you do. You become a more effective leader. You bring other people into your mission and your work, creating a larger and more diverse community of support. And you boost the confidence of the people around you, because it feels great to be asked for help.
I will leave you with a challenge: find two people in your life who have a skill you lack and ask for their help this week.
Maybe it’s tech expertise like the Tech2Empower advisors who helped Running Start. Maybe it’s a friend who is good at handling difficult conversations who can prepare you for a tough meeting. (I’m about to ask my partner, who writes for a living, to read over and give honest feedback on this blog post!)
The more people you ask for help, the more people will be engaged and invested in your future and your cause. Women in politics are under incredible pressure, both from themselves and others, to seem like the perfect expert on every topic. So it’s up to all of us to resist that urge and show the next generation of women leaders that they already have what it takes, because they have a community surrounding them who are excited to roll up their sleeves and help out!