I had the opportunity to go to a summit today about women and leadership. I say it was an opportunity because I am deeply passionate about women and leadership, but also because I recognize how fortunate I am to have a career that supports these type of endeavors.
I left the summit feeling inspired, which is an accomplishment for any educational meeting, but I also left feeling extremely fired up.
The “fired up” isn’t a bad thing, although it was a reaction so some sentiments I disagreed with. Strongly. But the “fired up” has made me really think hard about my own experience with women in leadership- both how I’ve received and contributed.
The “fired up” started with a panel of women in powerful roles speaking about how they got where they are today. It was great to hear about their success, and I truly mean it when I say I am so happy to see where they are and to know that probably wouldn’t have been possible even 25 years ago. At the same time, there was some CUH-RAZY things said about their journey. For example, when discussing work/life balance and how women can have the family and the career they want, someone mentioned that women shouldn’t be afraid to hire help for their house and family.
This is very different leadership advice than what I think women in Idaho, or in general, need.
By the time my youngest was 3 months old I was a single mom, working a part time job (because I couldn’t find full time), making $11/hour. It never crossed my mind that I just needed to hire help around the house to accelerate my career trajectory. In fact, I can almost guarantee if you are having a conversation about work/life balance then you have the luxury of not being one of the 17,256 female-led households in Idaho living below poverty. I can promise you, they don’t get to think about things like work/life balance. Only survival.
Yet, here I am. Seven years later, management level job that I love, financially secure and fortunate enough to be in a position where I can take time and reflect on what I can attribute it to. Here are the things that resonated with me the most after today. About these things I can confidently say I would not be where I am today without them.
Social Assistance Programs.
I was 23 and a full-time student when I got pregnant with my first child. I barely had any income, on the contrary I was racking up student debt. I had insurance through the school but that only covered 80% of pregnancy and birth. Covering the other 20% was not even close to a possibility for me. Luckily, I received medicaid to supplement my insurance and I didn’t have to pay hospital bills with a credit card, which would have been my other option. Medicaid later tried to sue me, but that is a story for another day. They saved me when I needed it. When my daughter was born, I had to return to my student job when she was two weeks old. Two. Weeks. Old. Nursing was out the window not long after that. Again, fortunately, I could use WIC to assist with buying formula, which averaged at the time at least $150-$200/month. Yet, programs like these are constantly scrutinized and underfunded. They are viewed as supporting the lazy, instead of lifting up the future leaders.
Both my undergrad and my graduate degree opened up entirely new areas of life for me, and it wasn’t just collecting letters at the end of my signature. I learned valuable lessons, met influential people, and tested the limits of my thinking and my determination. I expanded my entire world. Yet, college is out-of-reach to many people in my state who could benefit the most from it. One year at a university in Idaho is estimated to cost $5,723 dollars. That isn’t event taking into consideration living expenses or the loss of income while you are going to school. We have created a path to success and leadership that is next to impossible to fulfill. Let’s encourage everyone to go to college but then make it ridiculously expensive and create a convoluted system to get any assistance. Done, and done. Nobody is winning.
Women Helping Women.
I once sat in a job interview and answered the question “why do you want this job?” with complete honesty. I told them I really needed the money, I really needed the opportunity, and I really needed to set an example for my daughters. As soon as I gave the response I realized my mistake. I looked desperate, I talked about family, and I made myself seem vulnerable. I rambled an apology and tried to clarify but it was too late. They didn’t end the interview, they didn’t smile politely and nod, they hired me on the spot. They told me they had never seen someone answer an interview question that honestly before, and it was refreshing. Two women took a big chance on me that day, and many other women have done the same since then. They have mentored me, they have guided me, and at times they have outright shoved me into opportunities. If I possess any leadership abilities today, it is women who took the time to cultivate a small spark that I have to thank.
It took those three things, amongst a sea of many other fragmented pieces, for me to become a leader. It would be easy for me to say that those are the things we need more of, and the problem will be solved. But that would be the same as telling women to hire help to achieve a better work/life balance. Because as challenging as my path has been, it is full of privilege at every step.
My family is educated. I have a family. I’ve never experienced generational poverty. I am white. I am straight. This list could go on and on.
So I was “fired up” today and it made me think about the systems in place that helped me succeed, but what I should be thinking about, what we all should be thinking about if we care about women and leadership is this: What systems are not in place that could help other women succeed? What could we personally be doing to help other women succeed? Not just women like us. We already know how they can succeed. Who else can we reach?
Leadership, can’t be prescriptive. There is no formula for lifting women up. We can’t apply our experience as a blanket and tuck the corners neatly around women just like us.
But leadership can, and should be, expansive. Constantly growing. Constantly teaching. Constantly asking “who else?”