South Carolina ranks next to last (thanks, Louisiana) for the percentage of women in its state legislature, and its governor is the only woman in statewide elected office.

But there's a four-day conference starting Sunday at Winthrop University that could eventually help change that ranking.

NEW Leadership South Carolina is a joint project between Winthrop and the College of Charleston. It's affiliated with the NEW Leadership Network created by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

There are 20 female college students age 17 to “45-plus” attending the inaugural conference, said Katarina Moyon, co-director of the John C. West Forum on Politics and Policy at Winthrop. They come from a variety of disciplines and from eight different schools.

“We're really casting it a little more broadly for public leadership: Find your voice,” said Lynne Ford, associate provost for Curriculum and Academic Administration at the College of Charleston.

This isn't the first effort in the state to help create more women leaders, but it may well be one of the first of its kind to work with college students.

Given our state's history, we should probably be starting even earlier.

The conference includes a visit to the state Legislature, panel discussions and presentations with women leaders, including past and present elected officials.

“We would like to teach them a little bit about how the political process works and how they can have an influence in the process and give them the tools to have influence,” said Moyon.

And Moyon and Ford are optimistic that some of the women involved will go on to do some kind of civic duty, whether that means running for a city or town council spot or applying for a seat on a board or commission or seeking higher office.

The final day focuses on professional skills: how to craft effective cover letters and resumes, as well as learning how to negotiate during your first job offer.

Because so many women are conditioned to be grateful for what they're given, “it's not surprising that the wage gap starts with the very first job,” Ford said.

That may seem to be a whole different issue — the gender pay gap. But if there were more women in elected office, maybe it wouldn't be such a problem.

After the conference ends, participants will come away with new skills and new confidence. And they'll have a built-in alumni network from the event, including the faculty-in-residence and the speakers, as well as the attendees themselves. As more groups complete the program, that network will continue to expand.

These are all skills that would help any woman — or man — on the road to a successful career and a fulfilling professional and personal life.

We desperately need programs like this to try to level the playing field — or to just give women a chance to take the field.

Reach Melanie Balog at 937-5565 or