Starting Strong: Women and Leadership

By Corinne Fogg posted 02-28-2019 05:46 PM


Each year, I am recharged and inspired by my time at #NAISAC. In anticipation, I pack my physical and mental suitcases with care, ready to engage with others, to piece out elements and lessons to bring back to my school, and to share in the community of knowledge and colleagues. This year, I elected to attend a Wednesday session to kick off the conference: Women and Leadership: Patterns, Strategies and Tools for Navigating Your Leadership Journey, presented by Amada Torres of #NAIS and Liz Duffy of International Schools Services.

Torres and Duffy shared highlights from Joan Williams work from What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know and Although not surprised by the research, I was inspired to be in a room full of talented women talking about what Williams calls the “four patterns working women need to know” and, more urgently, need to combat. She begins with the “prove it again bias,” where women are judged on their performance; men are judged for potential… where women’s success is attributed to luck; men’s is attributed to skill.” A murmur of shared frustration and empathy fell over the room as we discussed “the stolen idea” whereby a woman will mention something, and it will not be celebrated, let alone launched to action, until a man mentions it later. From this pattern, I appreciated Williams advice that as women, we should not wait to seek a promotion or new position until we meet 12 of the 10 requirements. According to Williams, and the empathy of the room, “men will go for it when they have met 6.” This reminded me of lessons learned from Erica Fox, Director of People Development at Google. Years ago, she gave staggering statistics from Google’s research teams on the qualifications that women will strive to meet in order to apply for a position and how this should inform how we write job descriptions, vet candidates, and apply for positions ourselves.

Torres continued into the second pattern of “the tightrope” where women have to negotiate the fine line/tight space between being too masculine or too feminine; we seek to be both liked and respected in an effort to get ahead, according to Williams. She echoed Amy Cuddy’s research on how our body language, as women, often communicates more than our words. Our posture matters, and, “in order to have influence, it is important to change body language.” Duffy posited a clear takeaway that I’ve been trying to instill in my female students for years: “If you feel that you’re not being understood or believed, drop the question mark at the end of your sentence - speak with quiet confidence.” The tightrope also includes a woman’s ability to practice what Williams calls “gender judo,” for anger often increases the validity and legitimacy of men on the job, but it does the opposite for women.

The third pattern, “the maternal wall” touched on how mothers (and even potential mothers) are held to higher performance and punctuality standards. Duffy highlighted the great complexity therein: “women who are indisputably confident and competent tend to be disliked, and that this pattern even affects non-mothers as younger women feel that their career opportunities are being limited by the assumption that they are going to have children.” This was fascinating, for I have honestly never thought of a woman’s potential maternity leave when interviewing; it’s one bias that I know I do not have. That said, I will be adding this piece of conversation, within our larger discussion of biases that exist in the hiring process, to our Search Committee Training. Both Williams and Duffy spoke of their own experience as mothers, reminding the group to avoid our socialized obsession with our own perfection as women and mothers. This reminded me of my work with Rachel Simmons and her research from Enough As She Is. It’s essential, as women who teach and lead and mother, not to be obsessed with perfection. Williams emphasized, “if [your children or students] see you holding yourself up to unreasonable standards, what message are you giving them?”

Williams concluded with the “tug of war bias” where an older woman will, sometimes, actually apply harsher standards to a younger woman. It’s another complex internal struggle among women and across generational lines; all women are navigating that tightrope of being seen as too masculine or too feminine, and sometimes we judge one another. The charge therein is to be confident enough in ourselves such that we can build one another up; a friend or colleague’s successes and accomplishments should be celebrated and not seen as in competition with our own success. By lifting another, we too are lifted. Celebrating the greatness of another woman, as both her mentor and her sponsor, is essential, and it’s something on which we need to keep working.

The session concluded with a few exercises I’d learned via a presentation from Marcus Buckingham a few years ago. Buckingham’s Claiming Your Strengths takes you through the process of identifying your core strengths and weaknesses or areas for growth. From this list, Buckingham advocates that we can discern a plan for the next 5-10 years of life. Duffy continued, advocating for something really key to our success as women: cultivating both Mentors and Sponsors. She explained, “mentors are wise, experienced individuals who share insights and knowledge -- sponsors find or create opportunities for your development and give you the encouragement and push to take them.” Keynote speaker, Shiza Shahid echoed this sentiment on the last day of #NAISAC when she said, “Women are over-mentored. They are given way too much advice. Women need #sponsorship - we need to be sponsors for one another, finding and creating opportunities for one another's growth and evolution. We went through the exercise of creating a list of people we are mentored by and sponsored by and those we mentor and those we sponsor - great practice in self and community analysis!

The session concluded by circling back on the research of Lean In and their tips for managers which aptly offers that “Closing the gender leadership gap is an imperative for organizations that want to perform at the highest levels… companies with more women in leadership roles perform better, and employees on diverse and inclusive teams put in more effort, stay longer, and demonstrate more commitment. To change the numbers, gender bias and stereotypes have to be understood and counteracted (” Having learned much from the presentation by Duffy and Torres, I would add that this is an imperative for women as well.

As I saw Liz Duffy crossing the hall today, I was sure to tell her how much I appreciated her insights and how well I thought she’d articulated her research and experience. What a way to start #NAISAC 2019!