The year is 2015. We have wireless headphones, self driving cars and jetpacks. But women are still scarce at the top of government and businesses in the United States. Although 2015 is a record year for women serving in the House and Senate, totaling 104, women make up just 19 percent of Congress and roughly 5 percent serve as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
But with women outnumbering men in college enrollment and completion rates, the pipeline to opportunities appear to be widening. According to a Pew Research Center survey on women and leadership, most Americans find women indistinguishable from men on key leadership traits such as intelligence and capacity for innovation, with many saying they’re stronger than men in terms of being compassionate and organized leaders.
At the 9th annual Women Who Lead conference on March 24-25, students, faculty and staff gathered to learn lessons about leadership from speakers like Shannon Miller, an Olympic gold medalist; Virginia Jacko, CEO of Miami Lighthouse for the Blind; Nicole Waters, career and life coach; and Gretchen Selfridge, restaurant support officer at Chipotle. Here are critical takeaways:
1. Be in control of your self-image
In our image-driven society, it’s easy to look at photos of other women online and see someone who we think we should become – taller, prettier, harder working and more lighthearted. But in a panel discussion about the 21st century self-image, women from FIU talked about the importance of being in control of your own self-image.
“Whatever label we call ourselves, that label can be changed,” said Maria Tomaino, associate director of Alumni Career Services. Each of the panelists stressed the importance of presenting yourself as you want to be seen – not how others perceive you.
“You decide your image, what people treat you like and call you,” said Tomaino.
Sheyla Marimon, the first female general manager of Radiate FM, says the media shouldn’t define women and beauty standards.
She asked the audience, “You know those Dove campaigns that say love your body? The media points out these differences and try to say what’s beautiful – like curly hair. Curly hair has always been beautiful and we don’t need the media to tell us to believe it.”
“Perception equals reality,” said to Nicole Waters, career and life coach. Speaking about the importance of clear communication, Waters stressed that other people’s perceptions about us are important to understand so that we may balance those with how we want to be perceived. “You don’t need to confirm it nor deny it, just be aware of it.”
2. Women and men must work together
During a panel discussion about the It’s On Us campaign, several experts and health educators stressed the importance of bringing boys and men into the conversation about their role in stopping sexual assault.
“Through my work I’ve discovered that boys don’t know what they’re internalized with and girls are afraid,” said Genesis Adrian, president of the Women’s Studies Student Association, who also serves as a peer educator for the Victim Empowerment Program.
“I want to explore why we’re uncomfortable talking about sexual violence. I want to focus on giving power back to [the FIU] community and letting them know of the resources we already have [here].”
Using the acronym RANK, Virginia Jacko, CEO of Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, reminds herself of what’s needed to achieve success. “R is for reach out aggressively. A is for act on opportunities. N is for never let fear win and K reminds me to keep things in perspective,” she said.
“Don’t ever be afraid to reach out to others and ask for help, ask to collaborate,” she said. Jacko slowly lost her vision and, eventually, her high-powered job at Perdue University. The transition to becoming a blind person was filled with people telling her what she couldn’t do. But the “blind visionary,” which is also the title for her book, has kept her drive for success front and center in her life.
“It is a biased world,” she said, “biased against women and the disabled. But that’s life. Some people want to position themselves for their advantage – not yours.” Jacko said building a network and maintaining relationships with people who can help you is critical to being successful.
3. Your mindset can determine your success
Shannon Miller said during her first run for the Olympic team, she was told she was too young and too short. And for her second run – too old. But that didn’t stop her from pursuing her dream. Miller would become America’s most decorated gymnast and Olympic gold medalist, and along the way she found that a positive attitude was key in getting into the game.
“Leadership is about handling adversity in a positive manner,” she said. “You must have the mindset of winning every day.”
Miller shared practical techniques like writing goals down on one side of an index card and then flipping it over and writing the steps you needed to take in order to get there.
“Know your direction,” she said, “because a dream is only a dream until you make something happen.”
4. Take risks
Gretchen Selfridge, restaurant support officer at Chipotle, had never heard of the Mexican restaurant when she was approached to run the company’s second store in Colorado.
“I wasn’t looking for a job,” said Selfridge. After speaking with Steve Ells, founder, her mind changed. Back in 1995, Ells was optimistic about one day having four locations, an opportunity that would make Selfridge an area manager. Today, the restaurant chain is opening 200 restaurants per year.
“Don’t work for a company based on what you’ll get paid,” she said. “Find what you’re passionate about and align yourself with a company that has similar values.”
Selfridge said that about 53 percent of Chipotle managers and general mangers are women.
They also hire from within, with 90 percent of managers coming from “crew,” the people who are face-to-face with customers on a daily basis and assemble your burrito.
“I think I had a misconception when I started of who a boss or leader is,” she said. “And back in the day, the higher ups didn’t talk to the crew. There wasn’t good, open communication. I want to get to know folks. [As a leader], you need to be vulnerable and share things about yourself.”
She said it’s the only way she knows how to build trust and respect between herself and the crew. And Chipotle also has a rule of thumb about promotions: “You can’t move on until you can replace yourself,” said Selfridge. “Teach everybody, everything you know. Elevate the people around you.”