Five ways to CULTIVATE A WOMAN LEADER
Previously, I suggested that embracing new and unique styles of leadership could help women navigate higher levels of leadership, closing the gender gap that still exists. But, of course, this cannot be the only solution to breaking down the door to the e-suite. Structural and cultural change will also help us drive our heels through the door. Through purposeful, planned efforts to provide women with more leadership skills and resources and to increase dialogue about women’s leadership, universities are uniquely positioned to drive this change.
One of the most exciting examples of university-driven change was announced very recently. Alumna Anne Welsh McNulty—co-founder and managing partner of JBK Partners, with businesses including investment management and a private philanthropic foundation—invested $5 million to start a new Institute for Women’s Leadership at Villanova University.
The Institute will focus on four areas:
· Research and knowledge development
· Capacity building and skills development
· Networking and enabling connections
· Advocacy: Raising awareness and promoting policy change
(And, in an encouraging sign that goes against the tendency of many women leaders to undersell themselves and not take credit where it’s due, the new enterprise will be named after its founder: The McNulty Institute.)
These four areas make a good blueprint both for women forging their way on the path to leadership and for any university effort to cultivate women leaders. Let’s take a more focused look at each:
1. Research and knowledge development: Universities and the women in them, including students, are uniquely equipped to study, measure, and report on the women’s leadership gap. We can’t solve the problem until we know its shape and size—and universities can support rigorous, objective research needed to come up with solutions. Studies such as Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Lean Out: Teen Girls and Leadership Biases, with its findings that girls are discouraged from leadership from an early age, bring attention and support to change.
2. Capacity building and skills development: We must attend more closely to the pipeline of women’s leadership and ensure women acquire the skills they need to excel in varied professions. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, the panel on gender gaps in leadership was one of the most carefully watched (generating a record number of tweets). The WEF’s Global Gender Gap report found that “while more women than men are enrolling in university in 97 countries, women make up the majority of leaders in only four.”
The need for skills—particularly STEM skills—was the common message from the panelists. Davos panelist Melinda Gates, for instance, pointed out that when she was in college, she was one of the 34% of women studying computer science. But today, the number of U.S. women students in computer science is down to 17%. “If you want to say we’re creating the new products for society that men and women are going to use, you have to get women to participate in those fields,” she said. Through funds, scholarships, and fellowship opportunities, universities are well-positioned to increase the capacity, skills and confidence of women who can lead in all areas, including the STEM fields—the Michele Dufault Endowment for Yale Women in Science is just one example. These programs should become a standard part of a university’s approach to encouraging women’s leadership, particularly in fields that are male-dominated.
3. Networking and enabling connections: While this is traditionally seen as one of women’s strengths, it can be expanded in new directions. Yale’s Women’s Leadership Initiative, a student-led group that just held its eighth annual conference, is one example of these efforts. It helps build vertical networks among students, those entering the workplace, and established leaders.
Another growth area for women leaders is in entrepreneurism and innovation, rather than the traditional routes of climbing the corporate or political ladders. Women—and particularly minority women—have found such vertical routes closed to them. But if we can’t find a way, we’ll make one!
For instance, women entrepreneurs gain opportunity through horizontal connections, where contacts and opportunities happen across industries, fields, and social groups at the same level, such as among fellow startups. The success of this strategy is evident: Witness the 2015 State of Women-Owned Businesses report which found that African-American women are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the United States, with the number of businesses owned by black women growing more than 300 percent in this century.
Universities can help foster dialogue between successful female entrepreneurs and students through alumni-to-student networking and mentorship programs. Most universities have career services offices and programs that foster alumni engagement—a collaboration between the two can result in amazing partnerships that benefit young and aspiring women leaders.
4. Advocacy and awareness: Universities are fertile ground for both the research that feeds advocacy and the energy that demands change. It starts with an awareness that a problem even exists.
At Davos, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO and noted author of Lean In was asked what five things were holding women back from leadership. She replied that there is one particular element of our global society that sets women back: “Our expectations for what is appropriate for women. What’s so interesting is that culturally we’re so different around the world, but there are really deep cultural similarities to our gender stereotypes, which is that men are expected to lead, to provide, to be decision-makers, and women are expected to nurture.”
With awareness, you can recognize and name such unrealistic expectations. With advocacy, you can change them. Universities, often the seat of revolutionary ideas and advocacy efforts, have the power to name the problem and lobby for solutions.
But without this fifth element, it can all fail.
In addition to these four important elements, I would like to propose a fifth essential component for addressing the leadership gap: Work toward wellness. The previously mentioned expectation that women will nurture everyone else at the expense of themselves threatens well-being. It leads to a “martyrdom mindset,” as Yale Women’s Leadership Initiative conference keynoter Emilie Aries—founder and CEO of Bossed Up, a training organization—called it.
Ariana Huffington, in her bestselling book Thrive, addresses the burnout she faced as she cared for her company and her family at the expense of her own sleep, nutrition, and time for reflection. She worked 18 hour days, seven days a week—and one day, she came to, lying on the floor with her head cut and bleeding. She had literally worked to the point of passing out. Fortunately, nothing was seriously wrong yet. But it was a sign of how much she had been neglecting her health.
The experience led to an epiphany: Ariana committed to changing her life and leading by example. Calling for a revolution, she re-conceptualized success and leadership, asking us to embrace four important pillars needed to fully thrive: Well-being, Wisdom, Wonder, and Giving.
There’s a reason why well-being is the first pillar in the book. Less stress, less burnout, more sleep, and positive thinking all contribute to a better lifestyle and inherently make us better leaders. This is especially important for women, since we know that the overwhelming majority of us take on more responsibilities at home than our male counterparts. If women can’t embrace their own well-being as a tenet of their daily practice, how can they be expected to nurture their careers and their personal lives?
This revolution must be widely embraced, starting with our institutions of higher education. This is why I and other student-life professionals work hard to help students find balance and make time for wellness at Yale. If they learn and carry this basic tenet with them into their future careers, it opens an opportunity to drive change in the organizations they will someday run, creating a cultural revolution shaped around wellness.
How does this help women lead? They will no longer be forced to become the “martyrs” who push themselves to the max without time to attend to other important aspects of their lives. They can nurture the other parts of their lives that align with their personal goals and make them even more effective leaders.
It may not be easy, but it’s important to carve out time for what keeps us well and make it a priority of our day. Here are some of the ways I stay well. These practices make me a better person and a better leader.
Without well-being, all the effort in the world won’t put anyone, especially women, on top. We can lean in, lean out, and study STEM subjects until we drop (literally). But the cultural change that will open space for women at the tip of the pyramid comes after building a strong foundation: The health and well-being of the women who will lead us.