This past week I attended another great Go Lead Idaho event – A Legacy of Leading. Go Lead Idaho helps women build leadership skills and helps women engage in politics, public advocacy, and public planning. The speakers this week, Marilyn Monroe Fordham and Rose Bowman, are two veterans of being “first”. Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how recently and severely women’s work and political options were limited to a small subset of opportunities.
Both speakers talked about being strongly discouraged in the 70s and 80s from choosing challenging, non-secretarial type degrees in college and from applying for jobs that were at the time typically reserved for men. Marilyn talked about staying in a banking job for years trying to break through the glass ceiling of “no women can be bank officers”. She eventually left to start her own business as promotion after promotion passed her by. They didn’t even hide why they wouldn’t consider her – they flatly stated it was because she was a woman. The powers that be also talked about the possibility that she might someday get pregnant as a roadblock to many roles – those were the days when women were expected to quit working as soon as they “showed” their pregnancy. While today few people would come out and say so, and many may think they’re being totally fair when evaluating people, there are countless subtle perceptions and reactions that still keep women from being completely successful.
This doesn’t mean we give up or sit around complaining – we need to stand up for ourselves. Don’t get discouraged, keep things positive, and stay focused on the goal. How other people perceive you matters – but don’t let it define you. And don’t try to do it alone. Ask for help and give help to others. Step up to help with projects – you will learn a lot, make new contacts, and show people what you can do. Even if you’re volunteering or doing something outside the scope of your core job you’re still showing people your skills and giving them a reason to remember you the next time an opportunity arises. Always be ready to help others, especially women who may be looking for a female based network. Help others feel confident and build their own circles.
When you are choosing new projects and opportunities challenge yourself. Don’t compare yourself to others and what they could do with the job, project, or role – think of what you can contribute and be creative about it. Others don’t really know more about how to do it than you do – and what you do know how to do could be exactly what is needed whether it’s typical or not. Stretch yourself and don’t focus at first on the practicalities. Figure out what needs to be done then come up with a plan that combines your needs with the needs of the job or project. Many times the schedules and specifics are much more flexible than they seem at first – ask for what you need.
Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to redefine it. Marilyn recounted how she sat on boards with a mix of men and women and there were often 1-2 people who tried to “win” and dominate discussions. However, as she joined boards that were composed of all women she saw a lot more of a focus on solving the problem and collaborating. Over the years the boards she was on became more efficient as they spent less time “playing golf” and instead focused on getting the work done sooner so they could get back to their responsibilities such as families and full time jobs. This wasn’t because of the inherent gender differences but because the women had different goals in mind and focused on them. They stated their needs, got things done, and made the job better.
When Rose ran for US Senate in Idaho in 1972 she was the first woman to do so. People were less likely to give money to a woman and she was running in the primary against the husbands of friends. She got out, made contacts, networked, but still lost the primary. But she was out there, she showed everyone that a woman could run, and she leveraged the contacts she made into appointments to multiple statewide offices. She made a difference. So what was next – what women have run for US Senate since then in Idaho? None. Women haven’t stepped up. We all have our excuses – we’re too busy, we don’t feel we have the skills, or it just seems like too much work. But really – why hasn’t any woman run again in the last 40 years?
You don’t have to start out with a national political office – but start somewhere. Do something new, extend your comfort zone, grow your network, and get in the game – any game! Go lead Idaho!