In their column, “Society, not choice, encumbers women” (Feb. 19), Adda Birnir and Basha Rubin argue that systemic barriers explain the lack of women in leadership positions on and beyond campus. “Few have taken into consideration,” they say, “that these opportunities [to take on leadership roles] may not be truly open to women.” They claim that campus organizations such as ours, the Women’s Leadership Initiative, focus excessively on why women don’t actively choose to be leaders, and they further find this focus to be “unproductive and alarming.” We would like to take this opportunity to clarify the mission of WLI, with the hope of both erasing misconceptions about our organization and advancing the discourse at Yale on women in leadership.
Women’s choices do determine, at least in part, whether they make it to the boardroom. Institutional barriers do not wholly explain why fewer women than men rise to leadership. The disparity in achievement among two women does not merely depend on the differences among the institutions in which they seek to rise. Traditionally male organizations are not off-limits to all women: A majority-female executive board governed the predominantly male Yale College Council just last year. Such organizations are, however, off-limits to some women. Passivity, reluctance to offer one’s opinion, inability to command an audience, reclusion and indecision are not rewarded. Indeed, one must question whether an unwillingness to take initiative ever yields success. To the extent that institutions reject these qualities and women embody them, institutions will appear to be culturally biased against women.
Should we demand, then, that institutions reward an ethic of passivity? Or, instead, should we embrace the opposite ethic — assertiveness, or the propensity to actively choose to live the life one imagines — and try to promote this quality among women? It is the underlying tenet of the Women’s Leadership Initiative that this is a universal virtue, not inherently “male,” and that women exhibit better self-esteem and achieve greater success when they aspire to it. In fact, leaders distinguish themselves by their belief that choices can make a difference.
Why is assertiveness not as widespread among women as one would hope? Why are not more women raising their hands in seminar, entering elections and leading organizations? How women are raised certainly has much to do with it. Women reared by parents who encourage them to pursue their goals will likely do so; women whose high-school teachers urged them to speak up in class will bring their participatory nature to college. In fostering strength in women, groups such as WLI play an important role. Far from claiming that women are individually responsible for securing their own successes, WLI offers women an organized setting that empowers them to be assertive in their decision-making.
Women’s advancement hinges on an interactive process between the individual and society: Each must play its part. As Birnir and Rubin state, women’s advancement requires that societal institutions eradicate prejudices toward women. One of the fundamental objectives of WLI is to give female leaders the tools to rise within those institutions and then pave the way for their younger peers. At a recent WLI event, one accomplished surgeon told our members that she took pride in urging her intern — eight months pregnant but fearful of seeming a slacker — to take time off, knowing that she herself had not had the same option as an intern, when superior female surgeons who could look after female interns’ needs were a rarity. Top-down legal reform on pregnancy leave may help, but also important are the organic changes in which female leaders begin to support one another’s career goals.
Quotas and affirmative action cannot create the confidence among women or the bonds between them that will make them more effective in seeking and acting in leadership positions. By fostering relationships among women on and beyond campus, the Women’s Leadership Initiative can.
WLI endeavors to provide a forum that encourages aspiring female leaders, who then proceed to foster women’s leadership within the other institutions in which they are involved. The members of our newly formed Steering Committee not only seek to carry out our mission on campus, but also practice on a daily basis the leadership skills that we seek to instill in women. Among these skills is mentorship so that women continue to invest in one another’s success. By bringing in accomplished speakers, we educate our members on the obstacles and promises that lie before them. From a sex-discrimination lawyer, we learned about the barriers that women still face; from Yale Corporation member Justice Margaret Marshall, our members learned effective leadership strategies. What distinguishes WLI is that we constantly seek an intellectual understanding of the obstacles to women’s leadership at both the individual and institutional levels, so that we may address these obstacles comprehensively.
Leaders believe in the power of choice. WLI leaders choose to change the personal and institutional circumstances that hinder women’s advancement.
Allison Pickens is a senior in Trumbull College and president of the Women’s Leadership Initiative. Tamara Micner is a senior in Silliman College and co-vice president of the Women’s Leadership Initiative.