From speaking to community groups to liaising with the media and briefing policymakers, political scientists share their work with non-academic audiences in diverse ways. In this new interview series from APSA’s Public Engagement Program, APSA members discuss how and why they engage in the public arena and offer their tips for successful engagement. For more information, including resources on engagement and a sign-up sheet for APSA’s Experts Database, visit the APSA Public Engagement Program home page.
Public Engagement Profile: Kelly Dittmar on Gender Watch 2018
The Center for American Women and Politics partnered with the Barbara Lee Family Foundation to launch Presidential Gender Watch in 2016. The groups recently launched an expanded initiative, Gender Watch 2018, to “track, analyze, and illuminate gender dynamics in election 2018.” APSA spoke with Kelly Dittmar, the project director, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers-Camden, and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics. This interview is lightly edited for length and clarity.
How did Presidential Gender Watch and Gender Watch 2018 come to be?
Dittmar: At the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), we’d always done “Election Watch” as a page on our website where we would track the numbers of women candidates and major news articles about women running in the election cycle. It was very basic and, in addition to our data, included news highlights we captured along the way.
… I really believed in the [CAWP] mission, which is to enhance women’s political participation and to do so in a way that translates what we do in research into practice.”
In 2016 we were able to build that out into a bigger project called Presidential Gender Watch. We were able to do that because of the support we received from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. After 2016, they were happy with the results and our partnership and, thankfully, they approached us about doing it again in 2018. There’s so much news about the role of gender and women running in this cycle, so we said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ So we’re doing round two.
The Barbara Lee Family Foundation has been a longtime supporter of the Center. We’ve partnered in numerous ways. They’ve supported some of our research and we have supported some of their research on women in gubernatorial races. That allowed us to establish a strong working relationship. So when it came to this larger project, the partnership was natural.
How did you determine the right tone and audience for the project?
Dittmar: We want to translate academic research and expertise to a broad public and media audience. Part of our role is connecting with those who are telling the story in mainstream media and being sure that they are paying attention to the research that is already out there. We want to make sure the research is translated in ways that reporters can understand and apply it to what is happening right now.
The greatest success of Presidential Gender Watch was that we developed a strong following among reporters, the public writ large, and especially our scholarly community of folks who were interested observers and contributors.”
That approach to research has always been my focus. Throughout my time as a graduate student, I worked for CAWP because I really believed in the mission, which is to enhance women’s political participation and to do so in a way that translates what we do in research into practice. That’s always been my orientation to research: if we’re doing it, what’s the real world effect? How can you reach as many people as possible?
What lessons did you take away from Presidential Gender Watch?
Dittmar: One: there’s an audience for this. The greatest success of Presidential Gender Watch was that we developed a strong following among reporters, the public writ large, and especially our scholarly community of folks who were interested observers and contributors.
Another thing we learned is that this is a viable approach to doing research translation in real time. We learned about what works and what doesn’t. One way we get more scholars engaged is to do short “hot takes.” After debates in the presidential election, I’d write to our list-serv of scholars and say ‘Does anybody have one to two paragraphs of a reaction based on what happened last night?” The responses were great and people wrote back very quickly. It wasn’t hard-core research, but it was research-informed.
Merging the longer analyses and short-term analyses will help us get the word out there about relevant research and highlight our experts.
We also learned the value of getting more people involved. Last time we had seven guest experts, and this time we built it out to 11 scholars and practitioners who contribute to the project. It’s another opportunity for us to have more diverse expertise on our team. These are people doing all sorts of different research that add key dimensions to the project. Someone like Anna Sampaio can provide her insights on immigration and the intersections there with gender and electoral politics, while Wendy Smooth might write about black women candidates in 2018. There are a lot of stories to tell.
Watching all the races in 2018 is a huge undertaking. How do you handle such a large scope?
Dittmar: That’s something we couldn’t practice for in Presidential Gender Watch, so we’re in somewhat uncharted territory. With my colleagues at CAWP, we’re monitoring as many races as we can. We’re looking broadly. To some extent, our experts will be watching races in the states where they are based, or ones that interest them depending on their expertise. They’ll be our eyes and ears on the ground. I also have research assistants who are following individual states so that we have all 50 states covered. If I spot things, I’ll share with contributors and our broader audience.
No one can capture everything that’s happening. We’re very careful to make clear we’re not covering everything and anything. We’ll capture what we can, and provide the value-added of doing so with particular attention to gender and intersectional dynamics in campaigns nationwide.
Gender Watch 2018 has a strong social media presence. How do you find it useful?
Dittmar: This was a lesson we learned from last time. During Presidential Gender Watch, we had a website with a curated news feed that included articles about gender or raised gendered issues. I loved that newsfeed! We had it categorized and tagged, but we realized that not a lot of people were going directly to the website. Most of our followers were getting our curated news and even analyses via Twitter. So this time, when we were planning how our website would look and where our primary means of communication would be, it seemed that social media would be the place to really capture people. Of course, that brings people to the website for longer pieces. That’s where we reach people, even the media. We also put out a newsletter for people who aren’t on social media or perhaps prefer a more curated presentation. We’re going to try and do that biweekly.
Be confident in the amount of expertise you bring to the table. Whether or not it’s the topic of your dissertation, if you are a student of American politics you have something important to offer to these conversations.”
You have extensive experience providing commentary in news media. What advice would you give to a fellow political scientist interested in engaging with media?
Dittmar: I have several recommendations. The first is gendered piece of advice. We often find that women are more likely than men to turn down opportunities to comment and say they might not be the right person to comment on a certain issue. Be confident in the amount of expertise you bring to the table. Whether or not it’s the topic of your dissertation, if you are a student of American politics you have something important to offer to these conversations.
The second piece, in terms of sharing your expertise, is to remember to speak to that broader audience and think about how you can summarize arguments and thoughts in a way that is accessible. Sometimes what I’ll do before I get on the phone is ask a reporter what they want to know; I’ll jot down ideas about how I can answer them in a clear and simple way. That way I also prevent myself from rambling on about the data and research, but still know that my responses are grounded in them. Quite a bit of it is just practice and being willing to talk to more reporters and thinking about what will fit in or contribute to their piece. Most of the time, they’re only going to take a sentence or two, so you have to pack in what you want to say as succinctly as possible. Sometimes I’m better at it than others.
I’ve also had help and done training with the Women’s Media Center. The group of scholars at New Research on Gender and Political Psychology have also provided media training at their conferences. Scholars Strategy Network also offers some support in that regard, and APSA has also provided resources on public engagement. All of those outlets are willing to help and give you tips and guidance.
To other scholars I’d say, ‘Please, more of you do it!’ because I wouldn’t mind getting fewer media calls. More seriously, though, I want to make sure that more expert voices, especially women’s, are out there to inform our public dialogue on politics and elections. That’s a major goal of Gender Watch 2018, and I’m proud every time that our work helps to shape stories and provide research context for what’s happening this year.