Women in Leadership: An open note to young women
Anger. Fear. Disbelief. Those are emotions I feel while gauging the current political climate. We live in a world where Hillary Clinton, a woman who has made mistakes and flip-flopped on critical social issues, may lose to a man who horrendously disrespects women, people of color, Muslims and the LGBTQ community. While I agree that both candidates are not our ideal presidential choices, is it really that hard to see which option is better? But regardless of your political leanings, it’s pretty obvious that if Clinton were a man, her path to the White House would be exponentially easier. I’m tired of hearing her being critiqued on her appearance, tone of voice and hairstyle because the main message it gives young women like myself is that if we want to be powerful one day, we must be perfect.
As an intern at GLIDE this summer, I was pleasantly surprised by the abundance of female leadership here. Despite the discouraging political climate, the women at GLIDE never failed to inspire me. I set out to gain insight into their experiences and learn from some of the most incredible women I’ve ever met.
Being a woman in leadership means that our actions and decisions are scrutinized at a stricter level than our male counterparts. Superficial characteristics like our hair, clothes, makeup and tone affect how we are viewed in these positions. Juliet, the Chief Financial Officer for GLIDE notices a stark difference in how people respond to her when she straightens her hair. “For a long time I would straighten my hair because I knew I would get a more positive response. People think of curly hair as being unserious.”
Additionally, the topic of curly hair brings up the issue of prejudice towards black women wearing their hair naturally. Isabel Montilla, Director of Human Resources at GLIDE, noted, “There is a dominant white male culture which sets a standard of how to be in the world.” In order to be viewed more respectfully, women alter their appearance to meet those expectations.
In addition to hairstyles, our clothing choices play a role in dictating how a powerful woman is perceived. Karen Oliveto, until recently GLIDE’s Senior Pastor and now the first openly gay bishop for the United Methodist Church, recently started buying clothes from the same designer Hillary Clinton uses, Nina McLemore. McLemore designs clothes specifically for high profile women with designs that communicate confidence. Oliveto noted that it has been shocking to see such a difference in public opinion towards her just through a change in clothing style. “All of a sudden people are saying, ‘Wow, you’re really profound and deep.’… Now, have I changed? No. Has what I’ve written changed? No. But how I’m presenting myself has.”
Furthermore, the pitch of our voices and the way we occupy space is critically examined. Karen Oliveto is skilled at addressing rooms filled with hundreds of people in a way that brings everyone together. But even her meticulous way of speaking backfired recently. Before addressing a large group of people, she stood up and spoke in order to project her voice. She was her big “GLIDE” self, and spoke with confidence and rhythm. The feedback she received was, “Karen, people thought you were egotistical for standing.”
Men, however, are praised when they are assertive and bold. A 2015 study by VitalSmarts found that women are rated twice as harshly as men for assertive qualities. Oliveto notes, “Just because I was trying to connect with people by taking charge of the environment, it was seen as a negative instead of a positive.” From a young age we’re taught to end a statement as a question. Women leaders that break out of this conditioning face repercussions that create a trade-off between success and likability.
In addition to the burden of being held to a different standard, GLIDE Co-Founder Janice Mirikitani explains how the societal messages women receive throughout their lives are counterproductive to creating strong leaders: “What represses us as women particularly is that we don’t believe in ourselves and we’ve been programmed to feel that we are more acceptable if we’re quiet and agreeable…and that is such a lie.” This creates a culture where women are reluctant to ask for a seat at the table and assert opinions that deviate from the popular view.
Janice Mirikitani advises, “We have to demand a seat at the table” and be assertive with our viewpoints. She talks about getting past our insecurities and speaking up, “even if you think it’s stupid, even if you think no one is going to listen.”
Dori Caminong, Head of Special Events, Civic and Social Innovation at GLIDE, also stresses the importance of making decisions fearlessly. “You don’t have control over other people’s perspectives,” she notes, “so why worry about that.”
To get to a point where we feel confident in our own skin, Lillian Mark, Head of Security, expresses the significance of inner self-work. “Having the privilege to do self-transformative work gives me a third eye. I, as a woman, can sit in a room full of men and notice, ‘Oh, this is a room full of men. What is my experience right now? Do I feel like I have to show up differently?’” Lillian is able to neutrally evaluate situations, which allows her to lead with a level head and without bias.
Her advice to young women is to continuously question the voices that play in our minds. “Why is it even coming up? Trace your own training on how you’re taught to show up in the world.”
So to all my sisters out there who are asking themselves how they can rise to leadership roles despite these hurdles, let the inspiring leaders of GLIDE offer you advice and encouragement. These women have experienced the same prejudices that we may in the future. They are slowly but surely cracking the glass ceiling and creating a more equitable future. I am in awe of their strength and brilliance. I am thankful for their advice, perspectives and vulnerability. As I continue to find my path as a young woman, I will always carry the support and love that GLIDE has given me.
Neha Jain was a 2016 Emerging Leaders Intern in the GLIDE Women’s Center. She will be a junior this fall at UC Davis and is majoring in Economics.