Rachel Simmons on Being an Authentic Leader

April 26, 2013

We sat down with Rachel Simmons, internationally acclaimed author and educator and 2013 National Conference for College Women Student Leaders (NCCWSL) keynote speaker, to talk about the importance of teaching young women to build on their integrity, self-awareness, and personal authority as leaders.  

Q: When did you decide that you wanted to teach girls to lead with integrity? And why do you now focus on undergraduate women, specifically?

Rachel Simmons

Rachel Simmons

A: I first became engaged in this work when I started researching my first book, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. I was only 24, so I was in that period of life where I was out of college with lots of good grades and awards on my résumé but very little in the way of practical experience or even knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I thought I wanted to work in politics and I had a couple of jobs in that area. I had been accepted to law school, but I realized in a kind of “aha” moment that what I really cared about was understanding why girls could be mean to each other. I actually left graduate school — I was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford — and withdrew from law school, which drove my parents into a crazy tizzy, and I said, “I am going to try to write a book.” So I moved to a really bad neighborhood in Brooklyn … and became a nanny and started working on this book that I had gotten a contract for.

Around that time, I also began working on girls’ leadership. I was looking for opportunities to research girls and “mesh” with them, probably because I always felt personally passionate about the need for girls and women to feel confident about their own strengths and personal authority … Basically, I co-founded a nonprofit organization and my book came out; [Odd Girl Out] was very successful, and I continued to write.

Then, about three years ago, I was invited to develop and teach some programs at Smith College on the Massachusetts campus where I lived. At first I was like, “I don’t know. I’m more, kind of, a girl person.” But then I realized that college women were carrying a lot of what they learned in girlhood with them — particularly when it came to how they communicated with each other (or didn’t) and particularly when it came to their complicated relationships with power and authority.

Despite the fact that many undergraduate women are aspirational and ambitious, they still feel ambivalent about how strong they can be and, more to the point, many don’t have the skills to exercise authority in their lives. So I fell madly in love with teaching undergraduates because I find them to be so motivated and open about learning things and just committed to their futures , which many of them are, and understanding themselves. So I got into it many years ago through one avenue, but the undergraduate stuff popped in later.

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Q: You speak a lot about girls not having developed their “inner résumés.” Can you explain what an inner résumé is?

A: The inner résumé is a set of skills associated with self-awareness, self-advocacy, and the ability to deal with conflict and failure. These psychological skills are required for real-world success, and a lot of young women lack these skills because they have grown up with pressure to be “good girls” and to please other people.

I think a lot of young women have gotten mixed messages about how powerful they are allowed to be. So, the result is that many young women have sparkling on-paper résumés with high GPAs and extracurricular activities, but that inner résumé — being able to ask for what you need, delegate authority, take a risk and try something you might not be good at — is not as strong. The work that I do is trying to help build up this inner résumé in young women.

Q: In your workshops and travels, what have you found college girls to be most concerned with learning about?

A: The one thing I teach that college women kind of go insane about is the internal voice. And that basically is, What are you thinking right now? A lot of women are disconnected from what they really think about something because we have gotten so good at wondering what other people think, or what others will think if we think a certain way, that we don’t even know what matters to us. So, I teach is my students to practice just tracking their thoughts and tuning into them. I have them ask, “Do I want to take this class? Do I want this to be my major? Do I want to be at this party? Do I want to go out with this person?”

You would think it’s kind of obvious that people are thoughtful with these answers, but many of them are disconnected — so the thing that surprises me is how much that [realization] means to my students. Once they tune into their internal voice, they can’t stop listening to it. So a lot of times, my students will take my workshops and say, “Hey, Mom and Dad, I don’t really want to be pre-med,” or “I don’t really want to apply for this scholarship. I don’t really want to go to grad school right now.” If you lose that compass of what matters to you, I guarantee you’ll find yourself a year (or five) down the road, in the wrong place. And the cost … you know, you can’t get those years back. So you want to be able to make decisions thoughtfully and authentically.

Q: What are you most excited about sharing with the students at NCCWSL?

A: I haven’t quite written my speech yet, but I am most excited to introduce a way to think about how we limit ourselves and to suggest some skills to deal with that. I’m really excited to talk about what I call the “curse of the good girl” and ways to overcome that curse. I think so many of us walk around thinking, “I’m the only one who can’t stand getting criticized” or “I’m the only one who doesn’t know how to tell my roommate to turn down the music.” I love helping young women see that we all struggle with this stuff and that there is a way that you can start to address it. It’s so exciting and so fun. I’m also just excited to be around college women.

This post was written by AAUW Leadership Programs Intern Nzinga Shury.

By:   |   April 26, 2013

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