Takeaways from our Fearless Focus conversation on leadership 

By Emily Kestel

For our first Fearless Focus event of the year, the Business Record talked with five Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame honorees about their experiences in leadership, the successes they’ve had and the barriers they’ve faced. 

Panelists were: 

  • Dianne Bystrom, director emerita, Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, Iowa State University.
  • Christine Hensley, retired Des Moines City Council member.
  • Mary O’Keefe, retired chief marketing officer, Principal Financial Group; owner, A&E Balm Co.
  • Mary Swander, artistic director, Swander Woman Productions; executive director, AgArts.
  • Dr. Deborah Turner, board president, League of Women Voters; retired gynecologic oncologist. 

Below are a few takeaways and words of wisdom from the conversation. You can watch a full replay of the event on the Fearless website

Embrace your power and influence

Turner: I think one of the biggest barriers to women is that we don’t embrace the power that we have. The power of women is phenomenal. We influence things every day. Every leader in this country at some point is influenced by women. … Power is not a bad thing. We should look at power as power to do things, not power over other people. It’s the power of getting things done, not the power of suppressing other people. 

Bystrom: Men often seek office for political power, personal power. Women don’t like that term. We often talk about power as being change and being a change agent and having that power to change your community, because that resonates with women. There’s a long line of research that women are more consensus builders than men. 

Hensley: I will be the first to admit, my first term on the City Council, I was overwhelmed. I made some mistakes, and I decided that when I ran for my second term, if I’m going to be successful in getting stuff done, I needed to figure out how to work with everybody. I went out of my way to establish relationships with everybody, even though we were on completely opposite sides of issues. I look back at that experience and realize how much I was able to accomplish by coming to that realization. I was all about developing consensus. Have a can-do attitude. Figure out how to get to the end game. 

Support and uplift other women

Swander: Margaret Mead said it took three generations of women to create a Ph.D., to create a leader, a woman of accomplishment. The family background and support system is hugely important. Join together. Be cooperative. Help each other. 

Turner: Sometimes we are our worst enemy. We have to get beyond wanting to be the “it” girl. 

O’Keefe: As I was coming into my career, all of my mentors were men. It’s really important as women to reach out and sponsor and mentor women. That support system is really important. 

Hensley: Don’t be afraid of reaching out to [people you admire] and ask if they can have coffee. I love to do that. People are very supportive here, and are really eager to provide guidance and assistance, even if they don’t know you. 

Bystrom: One of the things I’ve always [done in addition to mentoring] is to nominate women for awards. Every year, I nominate a woman or two or three for a leadership award that’s available. 

Final words of wisdom 

Bystrom: It’s really important for women to know their worth, realize their worth and negotiate that worth. Change can come from not only positions of power, but by being change agents in their community and to do whatever excites you in making that change. 

Swander: Have a vision. As women, we’re taught that we can’t create a different point of view or perspective. Develop it and figure out a way to enact it. And you will enact it once you’re a leader. 

Turner: Think about the impact of what you want to make or do, and figure out how you’re the person who should do that. Look at diversity, equity and inclusion. Reach out to and engage with leaders who don’t look like you, because that’s the only way we’re going to really be powerful and make a difference. 

O’Keefe: Get out of your own way. Work as hard as you can about things you love. Take those opportunities to make a difference.

Hensley: Have balance between your personal and professional life. Save time for yourself. 

Views on achieving gender parity in leadership positions

Women in Iowa have consistently made up 46% to 47% of the private-sector workforce in the state, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Yet the rate of women in leadership positions is far below that. Women hold about 40% of midlevel management positions in Iowa. At the executive level, that rate drops to 31%. 

There is an even greater disparity when it comes to representation of women of color in leadership positions. In 2020, women of color made up 18% of the women in Iowa’s workforce, but only 4% of female leaders at the executive level and 7% at the midlevel manager level. 

As part of the Business Record’s annual survey on the status of gender equity in the state, Fearless asked readers to share action steps to achieve gender parity in leadership positions. Below are selected responses, which have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

  • Men need to identify women as successors. Women need to be allotted leadership training and mentorship programs through the workplace.
  • Women should apply, run, and try. We still seem to be our own worst enemies. 
  • Recognize that the years women take away from work to raise a family is still work. Recognize that the skills women have from one career can and do translate. Start to look at things as transferrable. 
  • We have made drastic advancement within the past few years but change does not happen overnight. I expect to see more women in leadership positions in the next five years, once this wave has time to naturally progress and catch up.
  • Equal pay for equal work and providing paid leave not only for leaders but all women who have children. I cannot believe in 2023 we don’t have something like this in place across the nation.
  • Promote women. Offer higher salaries to women.
  • 1. Men need to split duties at home 50/50 and take on more child care so this becomes standard. 2. Keep working on subconscious bias with training, awareness, intentionality 3. Encourage flexibility and mental health support. 
  • Realizing that there is not a one-size-fits-all leader and way to be a leader. Women need more opportunity and experience.
  • Keep the gender balance law! Make public service family friendly, with reasonable hours and expectations. 
Categories: Leadership