ORONO, Maine — Twenty-four female college students from throughout Maine learned about political skills Thursday afternoon at the University of Maine while participating in the university’s second annual National Education for Women Leadership Summer Institute program.
The program is designed to address the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles, according to Mary R. Cathcart, a senior policy associate at the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at UM. The institute is a six-day residential program that began Thursday morning with a speech by Amy Fried, associate dean of research at UM’s College of Arts and Sciences, and continued with events throughout the day centered on building leadership skills.
“It’s important, if you want women to move into the higher levels [of politics], to get them into other offices first,” because women are typically more comfortable starting out in lower political roles and working their way up as opposed to jumping right into higher positions, Fried said.
“Executive positions seem to be more difficult for women to get into,” Fried said.
The number of women in the state Legislature and Congress has been growing steadily during the past few years, Fried noted, but only 29 percent of Maine legislators are women, compared with 37.5 percent and 37.2 percent for New Hampshire and Vermont, respectively. Congress rates even lower at 17 percent.
“Equity would be more like 50 percent,” Fried said.
Women aren’t often inclined to run for office and sometimes have difficulty securing campaign financing, Fried said. Surveys have shown voters tend to judge political candidates’ competency and confidence based largely on the candidate’s gender, according to Fried.
The participants varied in age and came from universities in addition to UM, including Husson University, the University of Maine at Fort Kent, Colby College, the University of Southern Maine and several others. Events throughout the rest of the day included a public speaking workshop, small group discussion with state rep-resentatives and a public leadership workshop with UM staff and state representatives.
Amber Hathaway, a dual math and women studies third-year student from UM, said she first heard of the summer institute from her faculty adviser. Hathaway said this is her first time participating in the program and expects it will help her build leadership skills.
Kristen Mehnert, an international affairs student from UM, said she is looking to become more involved in international politics but is a “little shaky” with public speaking.
“I’m looking to get a little better at the public speaking and public leadership aspect,” Mehnert said.
Anna Assenmacher, a business management student from UM, said she is glad the program exists because women “don’t get as much help as men do” in the political world.
The program will continue until June 8 and includes networking workshops, discussions with female legislators, political action projects, a visit to the State House in Augusta and mock press conferences and legislative hearings. Various organizations are sponsoring the events, including the University of Maine Cooperative Ex-tension, the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at UM, TD Bank, Bangor Savings Bank, the Bangor Daily News and the Maine Women’s Fund.
The program isn’t designed specifically to groom women for the Legislature, according to Cathcart, but it does help them think about running for office.
The $70,000 program is funded by the Cooperative Extension, the policy center, some of the event’s sponsors and donations from UM faculty members.
Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics started the NEW Leadership Summer Institute program in 1991, and UM became the 17th university to participate in it last June.