By Emily Barske, Business Record Editor
I have a vivid memory that has shaped how I view the world – and what I want the world to become. The memory is one of many that have made me want more educators, more bosses and more leaders to empower young women.
I decided to talk with my professor after class was finished. I had received an A on a recent paper, but it wasn’t a perfect score. I wanted to understand what I could do better. It was a four-week community college class on modern literature that was very fast-paced. We had to read “Grapes of Wrath” in four days and “Hamlet” in two.
“Your high school teachers must have said you were a good writer,” the professor told me. The rest of the dialogue became a blur as I internalized the comment. Perhaps the comment wouldn’t have been a big deal to anyone else, but it was a turning point for me.
That’s because I was 15 years old at the time and still in high school.
I wouldn’t take the high school writing courses for two more years, but I was in the literature class because I was working toward earning my associate’s degree in mass communications before graduating from high school. I was also on the swim team and went to two hours of practice, three hours of class and then home to do homework for additional online courses — all in the middle of the summer when many of my peers were doing, well, anything but that.
As I look back at what I chose to focus on as a teenager, I am proud of myself. But at the time, I had a lot of internal conflicts. Being an ambitious and smart girl never felt cool. But why would it? It seemed nearly every movie or show, at least at the time, showed the only way to be a cool girl was to attract the interest of boys. I wouldn’t learn about the Bechdel test until years later in media and diversity classes – it measures the representation of women in fiction by asking whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. (Hint: The numbers are improving, but still aren’t great.)
Thus, the professor’s comment was more than a nice confidence boost. It was an affirmation to me that my age didn’t matter, and that being a smart girl wasn’t all that bad either. Granted, if the professor had known that I was a 15-year-old, her approach may have been different when addressing me. Her comment freed me from being constrained to what adults, and peers, assumed 15-year-old girls ought to be doing with their summers and allowed me to authentically pursue my passion.
That comment was a spark that fueled a fire. I often think back to how I felt in that moment when I face microaggressions, subtle acts of discrimination, as a young woman in a leadership role. I often wonder, if we collectively stopped limiting girls and young women with both hidden and overt barriers, wouldn’t we all reap the benefits?
What I just described of my teenage years is riddled with experiences afforded to me because I am white and come from a middle-class family that supported my passions. But this only underscores the fact that if girls from privileged backgrounds face challenges, then we have exponential work to do in helping girls from underrepresented backgrounds.
I’ve come to learn that we all have differences in what we find offensive because each of us has faced a different reality. The bottom line is this: If someone is offended by something, it’s likely because they’ve faced a trying circumstance that perhaps we might not have experience with. We need to respect their reality, even when we can’t always understand it ourselves.
So please understand that the following thoughts are my own, based on my own values and previous life experiences.
I remember being told by a former male supervisor that I would care about my career until I had kids, and then I wouldn’t anymore. Though I don’t yet have children and I’m as uncertain as anyone about what the future holds, the comment seemed off base at the time and still does now. I have always cared about my career and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. As I’ve thought back on comments I’ve received like this over the years, I have realized that sexism was very much at play.
I also remember a time in college when I went to report on a men’s basketball game out of state. I was the only woman reporter there and had to ask to find the restroom because it wasn’t obvious where one was.
It turns out it wasn’t obvious because there wasn’t one – the only place for women in the press area to relieve themselves required you to walk behind the press conference podium in front of everyone to use a “women’s” restroom, which was actually a men’s restroom with “women” handwritten on a sheet of paper taped over the men’s restroom sign.
Bathroom discrimination is something nonbinary folks deal with far more often, and with far graver circumstances, than my one encounter. But I’ve thought back to that restroom experience several times when I’ve been in a situation where attempts to include underrepresented people have been dismal at best. It is not enough just to offer space if doing so doesn’t go to the extent of making people feel welcome and valued.
Like many microaggressions dealt with for the first time, I haven’t always immediately pinpointed why I was offended. But the wisdom that came with time and education – and unfortunately facing more adversity – has helped me put past experiences in perspective to understand why I took offense.
On several occasions in my current and previous roles I’ve had people make assumptions about my job responsibilities as editor – sometimes even immediately after my telling them that I lead the newsroom. They ask what I cover as a reporter or wonder who is actually in charge. The question they actually want to ask – I can only presume – is: How can someone so young be a leader? It’s similar to any other microaggressions such as telling an immigrant that they speak English really well – it may be meant as a compliment, but is actually layered with bias because of the implication that someone doesn’t meet our stereotypical expectations.
Young leaders face this challenge all the time. At our 2020 90 Ideas in 90 Minutes event, Tanner Krause, now CEO of Kum & Go, talked about it in one of our breakout rooms on Zoom. Young leaders often have to prove they’re worthy of being in a position to make decisions and supervise team members, who are often older or more experienced than them.
While all young leaders face these challenges, young women in positions of power face particularly high cultural barriers – and only more so if they are of color, LGBTQ or living with a disability.
I once saw a tweet from someone claiming Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., couldn’t possibly know anything about policy because she took office at age 29, wasn’t married and had no children. Political beliefs aside, this person degraded Ocasio-Cortez’s intelligence simply because she was a young woman. The underlying assumption is that if you’re young, you don’t know enough to be in charge. And if you’re a young woman, you had better maintain your status as a wallflower because your professional strengths are far less important than your ability to attract a partner and produce offspring.
Let me challenge those assumptions with a philosophy on leadership that many of us, including me, already believe: A leader is never the most knowledgeable person in the room and rather should have a team of smart individuals fully capable of doing their jobs with the right direction. Leaders don’t know it all, but they do know how to be strategic, flexible, supportive and organized – skills that aren’t necessarily tied to any given years of experience or any gender.
Put simply: While the value of experience certainly can add to one’s leadership skills, it isn’t a prerequisite. Young people have fresh perspectives that can be just as valuable as experience in some cases. And who are we kidding, if leaders of any age or gender think they know it all, then we’re all doomed in this ever-evolving world.
Student-affairs professional Ciera Graham wrote about the challenges young women face as leaders in the Seattle Times. This part of her piece stood out to me: “If you’re assertive and direct as a young leader, it could be even more of a challenge to get buy-in from people, and you may even have older colleagues challenging your authority and position.” If young women aren’t allowed to be too assertive as leaders, but also have to show enough confidence to be perceived as competent, it seems we’re between a rock and a hard place. This isn’t the fault of young women, but rather the unfair standards our society sets for them as leaders.
Even within the feminist movement, young women can be made to feel as though their voice doesn’t matter as much as those older than them because they didn’t face the same level of oppression growing up. This mindset fails to recognize that while young women may not have experienced of some of the oppression their mothers and grandmothers experienced, they face unique challenges. Today’s young women came of age in a world where idealism and comparison are impossible to ignore with social media and have faced two major economic crises riddled with gender disparities within the past two decades at the start of their careers.
Until we realize that on the generational spectrum sexism is simply different, not necessarily better or worse, we can’t help young women with the barriers they face in becoming leaders and we can’t hear the valuable insight they have for making the world better for everyone.
Young women are more than capable of being great leaders. They just need opportunities. And that doesn’t mean just elevating them into leadership roles – it means allowing them to succeed once they’re there. Here are just a few things we can do to get us there:
- If we know young women find it particularly hard to be assertive, make a point to ask them what they think instead of putting all the pressure on them to speak up in a society that has discouraged them from doing so.
- We know research shows many women don’t apply for positions if they aren’t 100% qualified, while men are much more likely to go for it. So let’s make a concerted effort to encourage young women to seek promotions and go out on a limb for a new job opportunity.
- Celebrate leadership skills like organization and willingness to help others. Look for ways that someone has quietly led, rather than always giving the squeaky wheel the grease.
- Ask young women in our organizations how they perceive oppression and what they think should be done about it.
- We know that today’s young people generally want to be themselves at work. Stop placing so much emphasis on what a woman wears or how she does her hair, and start looking at what values and strengths she holds. There is not one style a woman must assume to be a good leader, and in fact, having one in mind may be especially limiting for women of color, immigrants or LGBTQ women.
- And for Pete’s sake, stop making any assumptions about a woman’s personality or intelligence based on whether or not she is married or has kids.
Young women of course have to be willing to lead and make their voices heard, but let’s create an encouraging environment where they can do so. I am grateful for mentors and colleagues who have supported me, but I want to see more of them. The more young women we have represented in leadership, the more likely we are to see women break glass ceilings in some of the most traditionally male-dominated arenas.
I want a world where girls feel empowered to dream of being leaders – heck, where girls can be leaders. I want a world where girls can be unapologetically smart, ambitious and assertive. I want a world where they know that there is no age limit to success. And most importantly I want a world where girls have to work hard to become leaders – but don’t have to face unnecessary sexist barriers along the way.