What Does It Take to Make a Woman Leader?

June 22, 2015

In a world where the qualities of leadership are still most often associated with — and defined by — men; where women are scrutinized, ridiculed, and threatened for speaking out; and where the status quo is defended staunchly by those in power, how do we encourage more women to risk becoming leaders?

That was the question moderator Marianne Schnall and panelists Noorjahan Akbar, Kate Farrar, Lilly Ledbetter, and Don McPherson attempted to answer during a plenary session at the 2015 AAUW National Convention in San Diego.

“I’m very hopeful” about the future of women’s leadership, said Akbar, an activist originally from Afghanistan. “I think people are surprised when I say that because I come from a war zone,” she said. “But the methods used to silence women are not sustainable.”

“I don’t think any of us would be here if we weren’t hopeful,” Farrar, former AAUW vice president of campus leadership programs, added. “We absolutely are fighters and extremely driven by the problems but also extremely driven by the solutions.”

The System Is Rigged

“I thought that I worked for a major corporation … and that they would adhere to federal laws,” said longtime AAUW friend Ledbetter. In 2007, Ledbetter lost a U.S. Supreme Court case to Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. The corporation admitted to paying her less than it paid her male peers, but they argued successfully that she had just taken too long to figure it out and was therefore not owed any recourse.

Our systems and governments were put into place a hundred years ago by white, heterosexual men, said former NFL player and anti-domestic violence activist McPherson. “And then they call it a meritocracy, but everything is based on their lens.” We’re still living in a model of leadership where if I win, you lose, he said, but women can see beyond that binary, and that’s what makes their model of leadership so promising but also so necessary.

But women who do put themselves out there are putting themselves at risk. Although women in the United States generally don’t face government-sanctioned violence or terrorist attacks in the way women in Afghanistan do, they still face vicious mental and emotional attacks, said Akbar. “Differences are in the symptoms of misogyny. The roots remain the same.”

“If you dare to speak up, we’ll bring up your sexual history. … It’s not equal to violence, but it’s a threat, and it silences women.”

Watch an uncut recording of the panel discussion.

Solidarity Is a Solution

Bringing together the disenfranchised is the only way to amplify their voices and move them into power, the panelists agreed.

“What do you care about?” Farrar asked. “To me leadership is about combining that purpose with action.” From that passion, figure out what action needs to be taken, and find the people and organizations doing that work.

“Women need to create systems and circles of solidarity,” said Akbar. Right now, there’s a danger that women are competing for token positions, a situation that sets them up as enemies instead of allies and reinforces a winner-take-all leadership model.

But solidarity and alternate systems are worthless without diversity, and that includes women of color, other disenfranchised people, and men.

“We need to not be afraid of that conversation,” said McPherson. Men will say the wrong thing, he said, and that’s OK because they are men and don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. He advised women to be patient and willing to educate and men to be humble and willing to listen.

Akbar described some groups that she joined that didn’t reflect her experience as a brown woman, so she started her own. “We need to create transracial groups,” she said, places where different voices and faces can get the support they need to move into leadership positions.

But diverse groups don’t just happen, Farrar cautioned. “We all stay in our comfort zones. It takes an effort to say … OK, who are the people who haven’t been at our table.” And then go out and find those people, have one-on-one conversations, and figure out how to include them in the work to advance your shared passions.

There Is Hope

“I want young women to understand that the field is wide open,” said Ledbetter. Every day there’s a new headline about another woman breaking another barrier.

“It’s not the easy thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do. And [leaders will] end up realizing later in life that it was the right thing for them to do,” she said.

“Because of my background, I see the other side of this all-male environment. That makes me very discouraged,” said McPherson. “At the same time, I hear [Akbar] speak, and I’m good. We all have our problems, but she just said, ‘I come from a war zone!’”


Save the Date

Mark your calendars for the
2017 AAUW National Convention.
When: June 14–17, 2017
Where: Washington, D.C.

Elizabeth Bolton By:   |   June 22, 2015

1 Comment

  1. […] shows that stereotypes and gender bias are largely to blame for keeping women out of leadership positions. Women are routinely slighted when it comes to leadership at all levels, with one poll finding that […]

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