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The Power of Women in Leadership Sharing Their Stories

For the past two years, I’ve had the privilege to attend numerous panel discussions on the experience of women in leadership. Through my work at Nebo, I have been supporting a leadership development series for women at a large government agency.

Time and again, I am struck by the novelty of this opportunity. It seems to me that there is not enough discussion amongst women at work about the challenges that they face in their leadership roles. Or, there simply aren’t enough women in leadership to answer the many questions women have about succeeding at work. Questions such as: “What fears came to the surface as you took on your first leadership role?” and “What’s the biggest challenge you face as a woman in leadership?”

By the Numbers

In the American workforce, the percentage of working women is significantly lower than that of men, and the percentage of women in leadership is lower still.  According to the National Science Board, women represent only 28% of individuals in the science and engineering workforce. The American Bar Association reported last year that of all resident and active attorneys, only 35% are women. Only 30.1% of university presidents are women and the statistics show that only 4.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, despite many efforts over time to increase these numbers. 

The Power of Peers

The panels I have attended typically include four executive women leaders, a moderator, and an audience of 15-20 women at various levels of career experience, but in the same professional field as the panelists. At each panel, as the moderator makes her opening comments, she makes the point that the higher up in leadership you go, the fewer women you will find.

During these panels, I see that women are thankful to be in the room with others who have had experiences similar to their own. During the Q&A portion of the discussion, there are always a number of participants who solely use their time to thank the panelists for sharing their stories. At least five people in the room will comment along the lines of: “I thought I was alone in this!” and “I really appreciate hearing that your path was not always clear to you.”  Attendees have used the words “fortifying,” “encouraging,” and “validating” to describe their experience at these panels. 

How wonderful it would be if all women in the workplace could have such encouraging and validating opportunities for discussion!

So how do the panelists respond to questions?  When asked about how they prepared for their current role or perhaps what fears they experienced when rising through the leadership ranks, you might hear something like “I had serious imposter syndrome at first,” or “I struggle with a fear of failure,” or “I still do not feel like I can display weakness in front of my colleagues.”  Often, they talk about how someone mentored them or challenged them to aim high. Usually, there is a camaraderie amongst the panelists that shows the group how important it is to have a peer network.

Panels for women in leadership are a great way to start building a community and network of women helping women. As women, by learning about each other’s struggles, we can come together to support each other. In fact, this is a call to action that panelists continue to make. Rather than passing judgment on each other, competing or knocking each other down, we need to lift each other up.

My biggest lesson has been that these panels provide real value to our clients – as individuals and as an organization – and that every woman should have the chance to hear others tell their stories. 

So how could you start this in your own organization?

Perhaps you can encourage your organization to host a formal discussion exclusively for women in leadership. Or, you can start small with a lunch hour to talk about the roadblocks that you face as women leaders and strategies to work through them.  Invite someone whom you admire. Treat yourself to your favorite food and start by asking some questions such as: “How do you overcome gender roadblocks in your leadership?” and “What have been your biggest surprises on your leadership journey?” With just these questions alone, you are sure to hear something that resonates with you and learn new strategies for success to guide you through your leadership journey. 

If you’d like to learn more about Nebo’s programs for Women in Leadership, please contact us.

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