Harvard Kennedy School students discuss the unique challenges—and paths to success—for women in public service.

By Calee Lucht
April 4, 2018

Tackling complex, global, and seemingly intractable problems, careers in public service can be challenging for any professional. For women, being a leader in the public sector can also mean dealing with child care or the need to constantly prove themselves. In celebration of International Women’s Month, Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership (CPL) and the Kennedy School Student Government (KSSG) convened a panel of five women, all elected or appointed public servants, to discuss their varied perspectives on leadership, bias, and support in the trenches of public service.

KSSG President Gessika Innocent MC/MPA 2018 moderated the discussion, posing questions to panelists Mariana Matranga MC/MPA 2018, Edward S. Mason Fellow, Rebecca Mears MPP 2019, Hodan Osman MC/MPA 2018, Edward S. Mason Fellow, Kesha Ram MC/MPA 2018, and Tirza Reinata MC/MPA 2018, Edward S. Mason Fellow.

Each woman spoke of barriers encountered along the path of public leadership, as well as tactics for pushing past those barriers. All spoke of the crucial need for women to receive support from their friends and communities—and the unique power that comes from women being themselves.

Matranga explained how her husband enrolled in a PhD program at Harvard at the same time that she accepted the position of energy secretary with the Argentinian government, leaving her to care for their young daughter while he was studying in the United States.

“As a woman, it’s very hard to ask for help, but I did—many women, and some men, helped me out,” Matranga said. She also instituted “family-friendly Fridays” at work; if she or her staff were at work after 5 p.m. on Fridays, their children were welcomed into the office. “Until the work environment is family-friendly, women won’t have won the battle,” she said. She also spoke about how family leave regulations and the associated stigma needs to be erased.

Hodan Osman, whose career took her from commercial banking and the United Nations to the central bank and ministry of finance in her native Somalia, described how in senior positions women were expected to be more capable and more prepared than men.

“Women have to prove themselves over and over again, which can be exhausting; with men, competence is generally assumed.” One tactic for handling bias: watching her male colleagues closely. She noted that men were not serving tea or water at meetings, for example, so Osman also did not offer to do so—even though colleagues sometimes wrongly assumed she was an intern and that she would take up the task.

“You have to give up being liked,” she said. At the same time, she is driven to make a meaningful contribution. “In Somalia, the word for public servant translates to ‘one who shoulders responsibility,’” Osman said. “I feel that responsibility, and also the excitement of working in public service.”

Kesha Ram, elected to the Vermont House of Representatives at the age of 22, spoke of the power of knowing one’s craft and the importance of identifying what motivates people, really listening to them, and then reaching across the aisle to get work done. While in office, she introduced a bill to get the Abenaki tribe recognized. The bill passed. A Republican senator pulled her aside and told her it was the most well-crafted piece of legislation he’d ever seen.

“Public service is who you are when no one is looking,” Ram said. “It’s the sum of your interpersonal actions, not just speeches and accolades.”

As a young woman working in Indonesia’s infrastructure sector, Tirza Reinata quickly identified ways to make herself invaluable. She earned the nickname “the de-bottlenecking queen” by simply reading regulations that no one else took the time to read.

“Success boils down to quality,” she said. “If you show you are a high value asset, people take you seriously.” At the same time, she wanted to bring all of herself to the table. “I try to just be myself—not just a man in heels. I use my personal, genuine warmth to foster relationships,” she offered.

Reinata also spoke about the importance of supporting other women and garnering the support of men. “Give women credit publicly,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to acknowledge high-quality women colleagues; let it be known that they are valuable. And men speaking up for women will have positive ripple effects. If you’re lucky in life, pass it on. The small, good things you do will ripple out; it’s for the greater good.”

Public service is who you are when no one is looking. It’s the sum of your interpersonal actions, not just speeches and accolades.

Kesha Ram MC/MPA 2018

Rebecca Mears, who at age 19 ran for state delegate in Rhode Island, offered words of encouragement: “If not now, when? If not you, who?” If she hadn’t taken a chance and run for office when she did, she’s not sure she would have considered pursuing advanced public policy and law degrees (she is a concurrent JD candidate at Stanford). Even though Mears didn’t win that election—she was crushed after losing by just 84 votes or 0.3 percent—she remained determined. The day of her defeat, Mears put a note in her phone that read, “Try again.” Years later, the note is still there to remind her.

“You are enough,” she said. “You are enough. You are enough.”

For these leaders, it bears repeating.