For 20 years, the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP) at Harvard Kennedy School has driven research to close gender gaps in the realms of economic opportunity, political participation, health, and education. In May, the Kennedy School celebrated two decades of WAPPP and the impact that its work is having in the United States and across the world.  

Iris Bohnet, the Roy E. Larsen Professor of Public Policy and director of WAPPP, sketched out the history of this flagship program and its contributions to research on gender and security, politics, and  international development, when speaking at the Women’s Leadership Board (WLB) meeting, emphasizing that “to reduce gender bias, we have to move beyond trying to fix mindsets and instead fix systems.”

Following Bohnet’s overview, four Kennedy School faculty affiliated with WAPPP discussed their work on gender in the contexts of political representation, economics and international development, and leadership advancement.

Harvard Kennedy School leadership and faculty discuss WAPPP's research on gender.

Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf, who moderated the faculty conversation, said that “there is good news in the world. Some of this is to the credit of WAPPP and the WLB. There are more women in positions of power. But for all the progress we see, of course, so much more needs to be done. The faculty at the Kennedy School are doing that very hard, very important work.”

Jane Mansbridge, Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values, spoke about her work on the democratic idea that in some conditions political representatives should share at least some of the attributes of the people they represent, a concept known as descriptive representation. However, Mansbridge also warned against the dangers of “essentialism,” the idea that every member of a group is bound together by a single trait: “By assuming women have a particular essence, you can assume too much homogeneity in the group, simplify their concerns, and marginalize them.”  She concluded more broadly that, “the impact of good political theory is to help us understand our ideals, so they are not just gut ideals but based on both good arguments and an understanding of their possible dangers.”

Moving from the realm of political representation to that of economics and development, Rohini Pande, Rafik Hariri Professor of International Political Economy, provided an overview of structural inequality and women’s work around the world, starting with an example from her own research in India about attitudes towards women working outside the home in poor rural communities. Pande observed that “paid work is always valuable for poor women. So, what prevents them from seeking work? In many settings, husbands face a reputational cost. If your wife is seen out working, the community perception is that you aren’t a good provider.” She pointed out that the impact of such gender norms is also seen in wealthy countries, citing research on elite MBA classrooms in America. Pande described a recent study that found that single women in MBA programs underplayed professional ambition when compared to married women or men—either married or single—presumably because unmarried women who are seen as very ambitious may be penalized in the marriage market. “Norms,” Pande said, “can create situations of structural inequality and winners and losers.”

Robert Livingston, lecturer in public policy, also spoke about gender expectations and stereotypes, highlighting the complexity of social disadvantage. “Even when women are in leadership positions, they are often constrained,” Livingston said. The expectation is that “women ‘should’ be warm and communal. However, leaders ‘should’ be tough and assertive.” Livingston noted that black men also receive backlash in positions of power. Black women in prominent leadership positions, Livingston observed, have different challenges from both white women and black men. His research has shown that black female leaders tend to be more heavily punished for competence-related errors than these other two groups since they are two degrees removed from the stereotype of the white male leader.

Like Livingston, Hannah Riley Bowles, senior lecturer and WAPPP research director, examined the relationship between gender and leadership advancement, observing that much of the existing research emphasizes how and why women fail to attain leadership positions. She explained, “I want to elevate images and stories about how women succeed.” Bowles also emphasized that the gender gaps in pay and authority were largely explained by differences in men’s and women’s career trajectories. Rather than just negotiating salary, women can benefit from negotiating other aspects at work, such as roles, opportunities for development, and work-life balance, she argued.

The 20th anniversary celebration, which also featured a discussion with Swanee Hunt, Eleanor Roosevelt Lecturer in Public Policy and founding director of WAPPP, and Francine LeFrak, chair emerita of the WLB, was followed by festivities that included an afternoon keynote address by Ash Carter, Belfer Professor of Technology and Global Affairs and director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and an evening gala, at which Harvard President Drew Faust observed that “the Women and Public Policy Program’s 20th anniversary is an important milestone for the Kennedy School and the University.”

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