We asked three women presidents at Scripps College to sit down together to discuss women’s leadership. Here are excerpts from a conversation this spring with President Lori Bettison-Varga, Anna Salem ’10 (Scripps Associated Students president, 2009-2010) and India Mullady ’11 (newly elected SAS president for 2010-2011).
LBV: The question I always have is, “What does research show about styles of women leaders, and are they different from men’s?”
Anna: Just because someone is a woman doesn’t mean that she is going to have a different leadership style from anyone else.
India: If you’re being a leader, do you need to fit yourself into the framework of how it has always been done, and does that mean how men have been doing it? Or is there a way to be a different type of leader that doesn’t just follow in the footsteps of the past?
LBV: We have a unique opportunity here. A college 50 years ago would not have the multitude of different leadership styles we host here.
Anna: I don’t want to exude an authoritative or aggressive leadership style. But trying to work within structures in order to have a voice, you need to exert yourself in particular ways where you don’t compromise yourself.
LBV: The great benefit of Scripps as a women’s college to me has been for the first time in my life I’ve actually felt accepted for my leadership style, as opposed to being labeled. I can remember having a former colleague say, “You’re the most competitive person I’ve ever met.” I don’t see myself as competitive. I see myself as wanting things to happen — and if I’m the one who has to make it happen, then I will. I see that as desiring change and making it happen effectively, not as a bulldozer.
India: Right. Action oriented.
LBV: Action oriented — but with consensus. But you get labeled that you’re aggressive, and we see that happening time and time again. Coming here to Scripps, I feel like I’ve really been respected for my voice and my opinion and my way of doing things.
India: With the work I do on different boards — there is crossover between the different colleges — my leadership style is radically different, depending on whom you’re asking. Some people at [other colleges] might say, “Oh, India, she’s so rough and tough, and intimidating.” And there are people at Scripps who don’t see my leadership style that way at all. They see it as more…
India: Yes, persistent. Involved. Action oriented. It’s really who’s looking through this lens at the leadership style, and do they have a really objective lens?
Anna: It’s a very gendered lens.
India: It’s hard because in a leadership role you wear two hats. You have who you would be if you weren’t the leader in the group, and then you have this kind of “leaderish” persona where you can’t necessarily say everything you think, or do everything that you want to do because you don’t want to taint the people around you; you’d rather hear their opinions first before you throw your own out there.
Anna: I think that’s a huge part of broad-based coalition building, which is what Scripps and SAS have been trying to instill. When I met with the other [5C] presidents for our first meeting, I was the only one who brought a representative to the group because I wasn’t going to speak alone on behalf of the students. I’m not going to pretend to represent 900 people. I think it appeared to them as if I were weak and didn’t have control over my constituency. But for me, this is incredibly empowering for our students.
LBV: I want to go back to what you said a few minutes ago. I think that is really not the case that that is just a female leadership style.
Anna: I don’t think there is anything inherently female in this leadership style.
LBV: As a scientist, I struggle with a feminist critique of science that suggests that a male approach has dominated science — one that is hierarchical and objective — and that women do science differently. I don’t think that as a female I did science differently than other scientists, but I will acknowledge that there are different questions a woman might ask. And a woman might see things through a different lens.
Anna: The structures of leadership force you into actions that seem more hierarchal than I would want to be, and I think that’s where a negotiation takes place and where I think people’s personal styles come into play.
India: I was at a leadership assessment where they test you all day, then put you in group projects where they are videotaping you, with a team of psychologists analyzing you.
LBV: To see if you are dominant or not?
India: Yes! And I remember sitting in a group forum with three other male students, and we all had to talk about a certain project. It was like a task force team to figure out how we could boost sales for an area bookstore. The first gentleman gets up and does some very complicated math and accounting, and then says, “The answer is 15.” I said, “Oh, really,” and stood up and talked about ways we can do community outreach to boost sales. We are in a community with elderly people, ergo let’s do large print books. And we went step-by-step that way. For me, the answer wasn’t 15, if you will. Their eyes almost popped out of their sockets. This is Just an example of approaching a problem radically differently. I think instead of just doing a classic fallback, which would be to do the math or to do the formula, it’s what you do with those formulas that are more interesting. I do not think that was necessarily because of my gender that I approached it that way.
LBV: But don’t discount your experience as a woman. We are socialized to look at a larger framework, then to hone in on it.
Anna: I feel like I was personally socialized to thinking about how my actions affect others in ways that a lot of other leaders don’t think about.
LBV: You were socialized to be a people pleaser! You think, I want to do this, but not everyone is going to like me.
India: And then I might hurt someone’s feelings. But sometimes it can’t be about feelings, and so that’s the struggle of finding the balance, because we don’t want to discount people. So, there must be a middle ground between totally discounting all things touchyfeely and emotional and being a soft, empathetic woman who lets everything just go on by. These are the two stereotypes, and I would like to be somewhere in the middle.
Anna: The biggest struggle for me is trying to recognize a different form of leadership, one that is not overly aggressive and authoritative — and have that leadership respected. Scripps works well in that I can be respected as a leader without having to exert myself in a more characteristically masculine way. Outside of Scripps, it can be very difficult for me to have the non-hierarchal leadership style I like to use in terms of broad-based coalition building and fostering community among all people. That can be seen as weakness.
LBV: Actually, it can be for men, too, because I have worked with men who have been collaborative and then viewed as weak. Yes, you have to be collaborative, but, as a leader, at some point you do have to make a decision. As long as you recognize the differences in opinion and say, “You think this way, you think that way — here is the decision and this is why,” and then accept that there are going to be differences of opinion. But at least they should be able to ask you why you made a certain decision, and you should be able to explain it to them. I think the transparency piece might be more of a trait that I resonate with. You know, here’s the process, here’s the information. I don’t think that’s necessarily “female.”
Anna: I think we all need to agree on the process through which we come to a decision, even though we don’t agree on a decision.
India: Because if every one had to agree on the decision, obviously you wouldn’t get anything done.
The conversation turns to the Interdisciplinary Core Program in the Humanities and how it relates to critical thinking and leadership.
India: Some people are not fans of Core 1, but for me, reading all those things…was transformative because now I feel like I could go into a room and talk to pretty much anyone on a plethora of topics. I ran into a physics professor during my internship in the Czech Republic; I just talked to him about some physics theories. I am not a scientist by nature. I would know nothing about it had we not read Copenhagen, [a play by Michael Frayn] about Bohr and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle , and I just remember him looking at me like, “How do you know this?”
LBV: The vast majority of the students who don’t appreciate Core 1 now, later on will think “I’m really glad I did that!” It is certainly a class that is being critically rethought and retooled. The faculty does not just say, “We got it. We’re just going to teach them that for the next 30 years.”
Anna: That’s what I think I mean by feminist leadership. It’s the ability to be self-critical.
LBV: So you would call that “feminist leadership”?
India: I think that’s exactly right because a lot of leaders are not self-critical. They’re like, “I’m the leader, I’m right, I will always be right.” But if they’re not doing that self-questioning, they’re going to lose sight of what they were really fighting for, who they were fighting for, and to what end.
LBV: Let’s pick this apart. Feminism, if you define it as equality — seeking equality — that’s one definition. Let’s just say that a feminist is one who seeks equality of opportunity regardless of race, sexual orientation, sexual identity, gender, whatever it is. So, in that, where is the self-reflective piece? Do you think you have to constantly be self-reflective as a leader to be a feminist leader?
India: I believe so.
LBV: How does that come out of your definitions of feminism?
Anna: I think because you’re constantly questioning your own position within it and… recognizing your own privileges and…
LBV: You’re always looking at it through the eyes of others.
Anna: Yes, and we’re being fully aware of our own position. And that’s why, regardless of gender, there are men feminist leaders.
LBV: The three of us are certainly not in this for the power. We’re in it because we have a desire to make things happen for the good of the whole, and that’s not about power. That comes from a very different place. Recognizing your responsibility and respecting the responsibility you are entrusted with ultimately makes you a good leader, because that’s what is going to generate that listening and respect for the voices and people who are different than you in their background and experience….You’ve got to be intuitive.
India: Stay objective, but not be too easily swayed.
LBV: You can’t be paralyzed by this.
India: You can’t be like, “Well, maybe we could do this, maybe we could do that.” There must be some focus, but the answer is not always “15.”
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