My wife used to be a doula and childbirth educator. In her classes, she would begin by asking the women to describe a previous birthing experience. Most of the ones they described were negative, thanks to bad interactions with doctors or hospitals. As the women told their stories, they began to see that personal experiences they had thought were unique were actually common. They were engaged in what feminists in the 1960s and 1970s called “consciousness raising.” They were discovering that the personal is political.

The deep connections between personal experience and larger social structures have real consequences when you consider that women are greatly underrepresented in our political leadership. Institutional sexism is embedded in our culture and politics. Gender balance isn’t about optics or symbolism or even simple fairness. It is about the exercise of power on the lives of individuals.

Increasing the number of women holding state and local elected office is the goal of the Governing Institute’s Women in Government Leadership Program, which launched three years ago. Each year the institute chooses 25 elected officials to participate in a year of leadership development. Membership is not meant to be merely an award or recognition. In selecting individuals for our program we consider performance, leadership, integrity, commitment to public service and concern about the role of women in government. The program’s class of 2017 brings to 75 the membership of this network of people committed to “paying it forward” by working to help other women win elected office.

The academic adviser for the program is Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor at Rutgers University and scholar at the Eagleton Institute’s Center for American Women and Politics. As she reports, research shows that women in leadership positions prioritize different issues than men do, particularly those that involve children and families. They take a more collaborative approach to leadership and a more bipartisan approach to governing, and they often are the public officials most accessible to marginalized or underrepresented populations.

“The conversations really are different when women are at the table,” says Betty Yee, California’s state controller and one of the members of this year’s Women in Government Leadership class. By helping us to identify outstanding women to include in our ongoing program, you can help to change the conversation. To nominate an individual, please visit governing.com/womeningov.