Young Women’s Cabinet program aims to decrease gender equity gaps by keeping women in legislative conversations

The cabinet, started by the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota and the governor’s office, appoints women from underrepresented communities to bridge the gap between youth and lawmakers.

Dawn breaks over the Minnesota State Capitol Building on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (Kamaan Richards / Minnesota Daily)

Kamaan Richards

Dawn breaks over the Minnesota State Capitol Building on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (Kamaan Richards / Minnesota Daily)

Samantha Hendrickson

Amy Zhou did not enjoy her first trip to the Minnesota State Capitol.

As soon as she stepped foot into a state Senate meeting room over a year ago, the University of Minnesota student had to leave and battle a panic attack in the bathroom nearby. No one looked like her, she said, and she questioned if she belonged there.

A lot has changed since then. The governor’s office recently appointed Zhou to the Young Women’s Cabinet (YWC). She and other women of color work to shape state policy and create a more representative Minnesota Legislature.

“We have policymakers that simply don’t look like us, and that comes in every single form rather than just ethnic diversity,” said Zhou, a fourth-year University student. “That’s something that is needed in Minnesota.”

The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota (WFM), which was the first of its kind in the nation, spearheaded the foundation of the YWC in 2016. The cabinet, partnering with Gov. Tim Walz’s office, comprises 32 women and nonbinary individuals from eight underrepresented communities across the state, including Black women, Indigenous women, women with disabilities and more.

“[The cabinet] really sets up infrastructure for the lasting change that is beyond tokenization,” Zhou said.

These cabinet members, between the ages of 16 and 24, work to increase gender equity in state politics and bridge the gap between lawmakers and those underrepresented communities. According to WFM spokesperson Jen Day, they hope to center women’s voices, from many different communities, in legislative conversations and enact change in areas such as gender discrimination.

“It ensures that the state really invests in the power and the potential of young women who are leading so much in every sector we see in this moment,” Day said.

Since 2016, the YWC has helped direct over $1 million to nonprofits and individuals while training policy advocates and increasing leadership development among young women.

The WFM often works hand-in-hand with the Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy at the University’s Humphrey School.

Their joint 2020 study found several prevalent issues that continue to undermine women in Minnesota’s workforce, such as pervasive wage gaps. Women still make only 79 cents to a man’s dollar, even though Minnesota leads the nation in women in the workforce.

That gap can be even wider for women of color. The study showed that the gap between white women and white men in Minnesota is twice as large for Hmong women, Indigenous women, and Latinas. The pay gap is nearly twice as large for Black women and 2.5 times greater for Somali women than white women.

The study also noted that sexual harassment toward women continues at significant rates in Minnesota and can be more common in male-dominated industries. According to Christina Ewig, a professor at the center, a major concern is the lack of movement on these data points, specifically regarding the amount of sexual violence toward young women.

In a study independent from the WFM, the center also discovered that women of color are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace or be laid off due to the pandemic. The most at-risk groups in Minnesota are Somali and Hmong women of “working age,” Ewig said.

Despite pandemic-related obstacles faced by both themselves and the people they want to represent, Zhou and Nibraas Khan, a third-year student at the University who was also appointed this year, said they’re still excited to put in the work for gender equity.

“The energy is amazing,” Khan said. “Every single kind of powerful, emboldened person I could imagine is in that space. And they care about each other’s opinions, and they value each other and want to uplift each other.”