LOWELL -- When U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas strode onto the House floor for her first vote after her 2007 election, the energy of the male-dominated legislative body made her feel like she was walking off a playing field and into a locker room.
The keynote speaker at UMass Lowell's Women in Public Service Project Conference on Monday, Tsongas told an international group of emerging women leaders that the key to finding her place in Congress had been finding her voice.
"It's a process, and it's not a simple one," Tsongas said. "I understand that. We are, each of us, as we make our way into these positions, coming into places in which few women have served. But if we don't do it, then we will never have change at all."
Hosted in partnership with the UMass system, San Francisco State University, Arizona State University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the three-day conference brings together scholars from each school with delegates from Turkey, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Liberia.
Focusing on countries that have recently undergone or are in the midst of conflict, the forum's goal is to engage women from across the globe in public service.
Afghan activist Mina Sherzoy, who founded the Afghan Women Business Association in 2003, said she hoped to learn from the panels and other delegates.
"Comparing to the other countries, there's so much that needs to be done for women in Afghanistan," she said.
Sherzoy said Afghan leaders need to make lives sustainable for women by empowering them economically, getting them involved in policymaking and opening up education.
Financial stability is crucial for women in Afghanistan and other countries, Sherzoy said, because it gives them the freedom to enter the political realm or to find different ways to influence society.
"It takes time, education and patience," she said.
The Women in Public Service Project was co-founded by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the U.S. State Department and five private women's colleges -- Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith and Wellesley -- to give momentum to a new generation of female leaders.
In her speech, Tsongas stressed the idea that female leaders bring progress on issues that affect women.
When Tsongas, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, asked body-armor developers if they design gear for women, she learned that female soldiers couldn't hold a rifle while wearing broader-shouldered armor made for male bodies. She then led a push for the creation of lighter-weight, gender-specific body armor for the U.S. military.
"Just a small example of how having women in positions in authority can make a difference by asking simple questions," Tsongas said. "It's just who we are. We also have to weigh in on the larger issues, and that's the great opportunity that we seek and are fortunate to have."
The audience of about 20 women also watched a recorded video message from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, elected last year as the first female senator from Massachusetts. Speaking from her office at the Capitol, Warren said research has shown that societies with women in positions of authority are more democratic and inclusive.
"Despite these proven benefits, women are still fighting for a seat at the table," Warren said.
Tomorrow, conference attendees will hear a series of panels, including one on community engagement through science, technology, engineering and math, commonly referred to as STEM.
Panel moderator Julie Chen, UMass Lowell's vice provost for research, said increased technology results in economic development, which can provide a gateway to political leadership.
"That can lead to a greater voice," she said.
At a celebratory dinner tonight, Farah Pandith, the U.S. State Department's special representative to Muslim communities, will receive a public-service award.
Programming on Wednesday, the conference's final day, includes a session with Rangita de Silva de Alwis, director of the Global Women's Leadership Initiative at the Washington, D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson Center.