Equity and Women's Leadership

Written by Stacey Robbins - Faculty Fellow (2019/20)
September 3, 2020

In their monograph explaining deep equity and systems change, Sheryl Petty and Mark Leach pose this key question: “How do we become sensitive enough such that others’ pain is as intolerable as our own, and our efforts (at work, at home, in our neighborhoods, in our hearts, and in our thoughts) become about healing the collective?” My work on women’s leadership development is rooted in my experience as a woman in the United States; it is shaped both by the sexism and sexual harassment I have endured in the workplace, as well as my privilege. Petty and Leach remind us that as leadership scholars, practitioners, and facilitators, we “have a moral obligation to be on as deep a personal developmental path as humanly possible.” It must come to the work of transformation not only from our own experience but with deep empathy for others’ experiences.

Adult Female Profile PhotoMy work as a Faculty Fellow this past year explored how pod-based peer coaching--small group coaching in which participants take rotating roles--can support women’s leadership development in organizations to help address the gender leadership gap. Research shows that while women have entered the workforce at the same rate as men for the past 25 years and earn at least as many bachelor’s and master’s degrees, fewer than 20% of the top leadership jobs nationwide are held by women . The gender leadership gap persists notwithstanding research that suggests that inclusion of women in high status leadership roles yields strategic and financial benefits for businesses and the moral and ethical imperative that organizations be representative of their stakeholders and society.

My work included designing a workshop using the peer coaching process to help women build their leader identity across three levels: self (incorporating leadership in to one’s sense of self); relational (when one’s leadership is acknowledged by followers); and collective (being seen in an organization as part of a larger group of leaders). These workshops were presented to the Family Business Exchange at Seattle University and the International Leadership Association’s Women and Leadership Conference in partnership with my colleague, Dr. Avina Gupta, Senior Principal for Leadership Development at Chick-fil-A Corporate.

Participants acknowledged the myriad challenges they are facing as leaders in small family owned businesses, colleges and universities, and corporations, including a global pandemic, systemic racism, and a responsibility to examine oppression and racial bias in their own organizations. They seemed aware that these challenges require leadership that is inclusive, ethical, and intersectional. In fact, women’s leadership styles that value creativity, cooperation, and devolved decision-making are uniquely suited to the present moment. One need only look to the success of countries led by women leaders in managing the COVID-19 crisis; women lead 40% of countries with successful responses, while women only lead 8% of countries (16 out of 195 countries).

Cartoon of Business Women with gears behind herIn our workshops with women leaders, we shared concepts that are key to our understanding of women’s leadership development. DeRue & Ashford argue that leadership identity develops in a socially constructed context, in which individuals make demonstrable attempts at leadership—known as leadership bids--that are either taken up or thwarted by others. It is through the process of claiming leadership and, in turn, being granted or denied followership that one advances or diminishes their identity as leader. In small peer coaching groups, participants coached one another on leadership bids, the actions they will take to support their leadership development, which will strengthen the ability to successfully propose and accomplish leadership acts.

Crucially, women’s and other underrepresented groups’ developmental work must be accompanied by innovative and effective organizational interventions that challenge oppressive beliefs, actions, structures, and systems. These efforts must be championed by senior leaders, many of whom are new to the work of advocacy on behalf of minoritized groups in the organization. As Petty and Leach remind us, we must “acknowledge the …fundamental role power and entrenched interests (such as privileging whiteness, maleness, and preservation of private capital) play” in perpetuating inequity before systems can change and individuals heal.

At bottom, my work focused on the experience of women in organizations and the power of meaningful peer relationships to support self-development and build community. The literature shows that peer coaching relationships also have the potential to support senior leaders’ development as allies and accomplices and encourage them to make advocacy bids, which are purposeful, targeted behavior intended to remove bias and injustice, acknowledge harm caused, and create opportunities for advancement for minoritized individuals and groups. Examples of advocacy bids include performing a review of hiring processes to ensure objectivity, mentoring individuals from minoritized groups, insisting on diversity on the leadership team, joining a diversity committee, speaking up against microaggressions, and challenging one’s own stereotyped and biased beliefs.

I am inspired by the power of meaningful, ongoing peer relationships to build community, develop empathy, and hold space for meaningful organizational change. And, as Petty and Leach describe it, my work with women underscores the need for “a radical caring, that is not selective, but requires hard work of everyone, appropriate to our condition and circumstances in each moment . . . to heal this world, ourselves, and our social systems.” As my fellowship term reaches its conclusion, I leave with deep appreciation for the opportunity to expand my work on peer coaching and seek to partner with communities and organizations using this structured and research-based approach to development, community, and meaningful change.

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