Words of Women

Inclusive leadership is not a destination. It’s a journey that requires humility, curiosity and courage.

Thais Compoint

Untold Voices-Launch of the Words of Women Blog

After a chance encounter with the author Jane Pollock, I decided to make a long time dream to write a book about women leaders a reality. It was important to me to write a book that authentically addressed the voices of female leaders. In order to do so I needed a way to genuinely understand what women wanted to read. Having worked with a design thinking model, specifically empathy interviews, I chose this as my method of research. Using the voices of the “every day” woman working in education I listened to their stories and selected the focus of each chapter. As I conducted the interviews my intention was to use the information to identify the focus of each chapter and the stories that support the message. At no time was the intent to create a blog.

I have always believed that the universe guides and gives, but you have to be willing to listen. The journey that led to the creation of the soon to be book (the story of how this came to be will be blog post four) and in turn the blog was serendipitous. As I used empathy to develop my book, the interviews evolved from questions into stories. It was clear that the women who were willing to give their time also wanted their stories honored. As I listened to the stories of women from all over the world working in education, the intersection of these two inspiring opportunities, design thinking and writing a book, lead me to recognize the need to start this blog. This work is a way to honor and share the voices and view points of women who may have never told their stories or even considered their stories as words to inspire other women and girls.

Next time you are about to call a little girl bossy, say instead she has executive leadership skills.

Sheryl Sandberg

Don’t worry, I won’t try anything with you.

How do you know when and if you are impacted by gender bias? When do words explicit or implicit impact a person, who they become and how they lead? Stereotype threat explicit or implicit, impacts members of social groups, often times without the person/people even recognizing how deeply. Research has been done about the impact of gender identification on standardized testing results. When asked to identify gender prior to a test, a female participants score decreased compared to if the participant were asked The same information after the test. This is the story of one female leader and the unrecognized impact of stereotype threats on who she has become as a leader.

The Story of E

I started working at a very young age.  I completed my first year of law school in Spain and I knew I did not want to continue in the legal profession. Instead I was encouraged by my father to travel. My family was Brazilian so the logical choice was to explore Brazil. After spending time traveling, I decided to remain in Brazil.  I found a position working in the international division of a large publishing company.

When I took the position I was 20 years old. In most parts of the world I was quite young to start my career. Having this level of responsibility in Brazil was no exception. At 21, I took my first professional trip internationally. Every experience with a new customer was the same,  I had to prove that I was not a little girl, always working to show that I was a professional. I had to have a serious demeanor so the clients would respect me. When I would travel by myself I would go out to eat alone. People would stare and whisper. It was not “normal” for a woman to be alone in public let alone a young woman. It was assumed that I was “looking” for something.

My supervisor at the company was a lovely man. He encouraged and mentored me. However, I remember on one of my first trips he was traveling with me. Even though I knew he believed in my ability and treated me with the utmost respect I remember him saying, “I am traveling with you but I will never try anything with you.” The belief that an unmarried women traveling alone or with their supervisor would have other motives permeated everyone, even him, someone that I knew supported me.

When I got married I still worked at the publishing company.  I was frequently asked if I would continue to work since I was married. I was always curious about this question. Why did people think a young female just starting her career would automatically become a house wife? By keeping my career and being married I challenged assumed idea that a woman’s career was less important than a man’s. I continued in my career and became the South America chief of sales.  

Eventually, I left the publishing company and started working for an import business. After working there for 5 years and gaining more leadership responsibilities I became pregnant. When my daughter was 3 months old I was told I was required to go to an international fair. At the time I was still breast feeding and I had to make a choice. If I refused to attend the conference I was sure it would impact my career. I knew I could not continue breast feeding if I went. I made the decision to stop breast feeding and go to the fair. This was a very difficult moment for me. I knew if I were a man there would not have been a decision to make. I do not regret it, but it is still difficult to think about.

After working at the import company for some time I moved into a formal leadership position. I struggled in this position to have power. People frequently questioned my decisions. Maybe it was because of gender, but I never really thought about it that way. I have always thought that the difficulties I faced in that position were either because I was the first one to occupy the position or because I was Jewish.  During this time in my career I felt as though it was necessary to hide who I was, new to the work, a young woman, Jewish. I had to hide the parts of me that they might not like. I wanted them to like me.   

When I began my career I thought in order to be respected as a leader I needed to always be right. To be respected meant that I could not show emotion.

As I progressed in my responsibilities, I saw other women leading in ways that did not require them to hide, to be different, they were authentic. They were not having to give up their identities as young women, married women, mothers, etc. I started seeing that they were human. I started to realize that to be a good leader I did not need to always have the last word or to always be right to prove myself.  I didn’t have to be a machine. Little by little I changed my style.  I embraced strength in silence. I spoke when it was important and I supported the voices of those who worked with me.

Growing implicitly

E’s growth as a leader is an example of moments in a career when implicit gender bias shapes a woman’s belief of what is required of a leader. The stories of her early career articulate how words even from people we respect, implicitly affirm right or wrong what other people are thinking. As she articulates, the words of her first supervisor influenced her choice to always be right and to be emotionless in her responses. As she continued growing in her career she shared explicit moments having to defend her ability to work as a married woman and implicit expectations that resulted in her giving up her connection with her young child because of fear of losing her position. Each of these moments affected the path that E took as a leader.

Moments, both implicit and explicit make a difference in how we as women lead. In E’s case, she did not think about these moments as moments of bias. She shared after the interview that she believed these were more moments of age, religion and culture. While that might be true, we cannot discount the role that gender played in how the world viewed her as she grew in her career. What wasn’t shared earlier in this story is the fact that E is gracious and thoughtful leader. The need to be serious in her early career is far from who E is today. I work with her every day, I see her lead with her whole heart. She always puts the good of those who work for and with her first.
In her story, E unknowingly describes the impact of implicit and explicit stereo-type threats that shaped how she leads today. The small moments in E’s story are those that many of us have experienced, but also dismissed. Those moments impacted her, changed her and created, a leader that is authentic, thoughtful and someone I am proud to call a mentor.

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