By Emily Kestel, Fearless editor

Representation and inclusion of all women in leadership positions continues to be an issue that businesses and organizations are dealing with.

In our first Fearless Focus event of the year, we spoke with five women across the state about the personal and systemic barriers that women leaders continue to face and what can be done to address them.

The panelists were:

  • Evette Creighton  senior manager, talent, inclusion and diversity, Transamerica.
  • Amy Kristof-Brown  dean, Tippie College of Business, University of Iowa.
  • Tiffany O’Donnell  CEO, Women Lead Change.
  • Dawn Martinez Oropeza  executive director, Al Éxito.
  • Kelly Winfrey  director of graduate education and assistant professor, Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, Iowa State University.

Here are takeaways and pieces of advice from our conversation:

It’s OK to not be all things to all people.

Many of the panelists identified the pressure to be perfect as a consistent barrier for all women leaders – those who work in professional fields and those who are stay-at-home moms.

Women want to be all things to all people and we have guilt that goes along with not being perfect, Kristof-Brown said. Realize that it’s OK to ask for help and it’s OK to not be perfect.

It’s also OK to outsource help and minimize unnecessary responsibilities, panelists said. That could look like picking up cupcakes at the store for the preschool party instead of making them yourself, sending your daughters to a salon instead of doing their hair yourself, or hiring a cleaning service to come every few weeks.

Saying no is something that women should feel comfortable doing, Winfrey added.

“It’s OK to say no, to delegate and to not feel guilty about doing so,” she said. “A lot of us struggle with it by the nature of us being leaders or being active in our community. We’re hand-raisers, so we want to do a lot of things, but recognizing our own capacity is necessary for our mental health.”

Know your worth – and ask for what you want and need.

“I think oftentimes as women and women of color, we undervalue ourselves, we cut ourselves short a lot,” Creighton said.

Women often don’t ask for what they deserve and need out of fear that they’ll come off as being demanding or ungrateful.

O’Donnell said she’s optimistic that companies are more open now than ever to offer support. “We need to advocate for what works best for us, whether it be flexibility, child care support – ask for what you want and need, because at the end of the day, leaders don’t know what they don’t know.”

Surround yourself with people who support you.

Who you choose to spend time with is one of the most important decisions you can make – the right people can build a strong support system, and the wrong people can tear it down, panelists said.

“Choose your friends and your partners wisely,” Kristof-Brown said. “Surround yourself with people that don’t make you feel guilty about the choices you make.”

O’Donnell said she often reminds people that when picking a partner, “if you choose a schmuck, I can’t help you.”

Panelists also said it’s important for partners to share responsibilities equally and raise kids with the expectation of being equal partners.

It’s not just women who need flexible schedules for day care, Winfrey said. “I need my husband to be able to take our son to the doctor, not just me having a schedule that allows for that. I can’t be the one that’s always there. Women need day care, but all of us do.”

Creighton said she makes a point to remind her daughters that she and her husband are a team, and she’s not responsible for every little detail of their lives.

“They all have a part to play in being a part of Team Creighton,” she said.

Representation matters.

Seeing someone who looks like you in a position of power or influence has a tremendous impact on confidence.

“In order to create a paradigm shift, our young people have to see it to believe it,” O’Donnell said.

Martinez Oropeza spoke of the difficulties that Latino youths face when they don’t see themselves in education curriculums or see people who look like them in higher education.

It’s important for students of color to have the support, recognition and acknowledgement of their histories, cultures and traditions from people who look like them so they can move forward, she said.

Panelists also encouraged people to educate themselves on the challenges that those from underrepresented backgrounds face.

“Be intentional about reaching out to people who don’t have the same backgrounds as you,” O’Donnell said. “We’re in a much better place when different people are leading.”

Martinez Oropeza said it’s important to get uncomfortable and make a point to invite in people who are outside of your circle of influence.

Recognize the cons that flexible work can bring.

Certainly, flexible work has been a tremendous benefit for working women.

Doing so gives them autonomy over how, when and where you work, and thus leads to meaningful, engaged work, Kristof-Brown said.

On the other hand, however, a lack of boundaries that protect when you do your work can quickly lead to burnout.

Leaders have a responsibility to understand that the ways they choose to work have implications on others, she said.

“If I’m working at 10 p.m., I need to know that as the dean, I can’t send an email then because some people will feel compelled to respond to it. … So it’s learning how to change the way I’m working to make other people feel like they can set the boundaries they need and encourage them to do so,” Kristof-Brown said.

Furthermore, team leaders should reexamine how they measure performance and conduct review processes.

Visibility matters when it comes to projects and promotions, O’Donnell said. “The last thing we want to do is see the number of women in leadership fall just because we’re not in the room.”

Support can come in the form of a quick text or pep talk.

Telling somebody when they did a great job and recognizing their contributions makes a huge difference, Martinez Oropeza and Winfrey said.

You could also take it one step further by helping people realize how smart they are, and reminding them that they’re awesome and they can indeed do things, Winfrey said.

It’s also important for women who have influence in their community or workplace to recognize that they have the power to help younger women thrive, Kristof-Brown said.

“Younger women don’t have to go through the same challenges that you went through. Give them advice, and say, ‘Here are some pitfalls that you can avoid.’”

To watch the entire conversation, visit the Fearless website.

Categories: Leadership