Head's Notes - Women and Power
Posted 03/14/2019 12:36PM

Relying on our motto, I will find a way or make one, for 118 years, the Holton-Arms School has been educating girls to become leaders who will make a difference in a complex and changing world. While we usually reference the motto in English, it's not uncommon to hear the Latin version, Inveniam viam aut faciam, so it's not surprising that a classicist, Mary Beard, would inspire us through her book, Women & Power: A Manifesto, to launch our first Women & Power Summit.

Beard examines how misogyny deeply rooted in Western culture continues to influence us today, sometimes subtly, sometimes as overtly as the use of Medusa imagery to depict powerful women such as Theresa May and Hilary Clinton. She concludes her work with a provocative question: instead of fighting for a place of power within a paradigm that has excluded women for millennia, should we instead change how we view power? She encourages us to think "about power as an attribute or even a verb ('to power'), not as a possession." She would redefine power as "the ability to be effective, to make a difference in the world, and the right to be taken seriously, together as much as individually."

Girls and women frequently shy away from power; for many of us, it may have negative associations. We might think about someone having power over someone else, and that makes us feel uneasy. We think about abuses of power, where people take advantage of their power for their own ends rather than the greater good.

In fact, power is not inherently unsavory. How we employ power determines its character. Moreover, we cannot exercise leadership effectively without using power. When we understand power more broadly, we can do as Beard suggests and define it differently.

For our Women & Power Summit, Holton-Arms gathered a group of alumnae representing a range of leadership roles to explore the issue of women and power with our Upper School students. We began the day with a conversation with International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lallouette Lagarde '74. Lagarde obviously wields traditional forms of power; however, she has chosen to use that power to expand the IMF's understanding of macroeconomics to include the importance of women's economic participation. Not only has she has appointed the IMF's first female Chief Economist, but using data, she has convinced her initially skeptical Board of the positive impact of women's involvement in labor forces at all levels, from rural villages to bank boards. Now, the IMF uses its considerable power to encourage countries to expand opportunities for women and establish policies that support and protect them. Lagarde is using her traditional role to change social dynamics around the world. As a result, women and their contributions are being taken more seriously, as Beard hopes. Ultimately, I believe, these changes will help shift how we view power.

The other alumnae participating in the Women & Power Summit included the First Lady's former policy director, the first female tenured physics professor at Yale, a sports psychologist, lawyers representing a range of specialties, a planetary geochemist at NASA, a former college president, a network news producer, a private banker, a Navy officer, a CDC Senior Science Researcher, several nonprofit trustees, a Senior Foreign Service Officer, and the founder of the Center for Inspired Teaching. While most of these women, like Lagarde, have traditional leadership roles, they all spoke to the ways in which being women impacts their leadership, and many of them focus aspects of (if not all) their work on women. The private banker co-founded Womenade Boston, a women's giving circle that funds programs supporting women and girls. The First Lady's former policy advisor has created a group called Lady Hawks to support Republican women in foreign policy. A seasoned Fortune 500 HR professional co-founded a nonprofit dedicated to women's civic engagement. The physics professor actively promotes women in science, starting at the middle-school level. The Navy officer assists Vice Admiral Mary Jackson on a newsletter highlighting the accomplishments of female Surface Warfare Officers. Another alumna chaired Virginia's List, a political action committee dedicated to electing progressive Democratic women on the Virginia state level.

In the sharing of their leadership stories, our alumnae described different kinds of power, power in line with Mary Beard's hopes. The power of hard work and preparation because it makes you feel more confident, more ready to speak up. The power of confidence, of not worrying what others think about you, and of believing in yourself. The power of following through—when you see an issue that needs addressing, looking for a solution and persevering to make it happen. Thanks to the perseverance of a Montgomery County Assistant States Attorney (and alumna Women & Power Summit speaker) who noticed a loophole in Maryland law that undermined her ability to prosecute child neglect, the Maryland House of Delegates will soon vote on a bill that would close that loophole. The power of inclusion, in this case ensuring that all voices get heard. The power of listening. A former Navy intelligence officer (now an FDA compliance lawyer) encouraged girls to listen as leaders, because people are more invested when they feel heard. Citing her own failure to listen well early in her career, she urged: "Listen to what people have to say, because leadership is ultimately about inspiring people to do something they may or may not want to do. Leadership is not telling them what to do; it's getting them to want to do it."

The theme that stood out most prominently at the Summit, however, is the power of relationships: networking, creating your own personal advisory board, finding mentors and especially sponsors. From connections, confidently initiated and thoughtfully maintained, comes power. These networks should include men, but the alumnae–a built-in network themselves–repeatedly advised students to develop female networks. A former policy advisor in the Obama administration, Department of Justice lawyer, and FTC commissioner now in private practice observed, "I feel very fortunate to actually be in an area where we have made significant progress in terms of women's roles and leadership roles in the field of law. This is partly because in the last decade, women realized that we really needed to form our own networks and promote ourselves more aggressively." These women also emphasized the power of not just mentors, but sponsors—people who will expend their professional capital on your behalf. When one gets in a position to do so, women also need to support other women, actively promoting them in the ways that Lagarde has done. Men do this without thinking. Beard urges us to think collaboratively; I would add that we need to cultivate and leverage our sisterhood to act collaboratively on each other's behalves.

Thirty-five graduates ranging from the Class of 1966 to the Class of 2008 provided our Upper School students with a road map, showing them examples of how to embrace their inherent power and the power in their relationships: to find the power inherent in listening to others and including all voices; to find the power within themselves to confidently use their voices; to find the power in perseverance; and to find the power in connections with other women. These women's stories also show us that women in leadership roles have an opportunity to change structures and help us redefine power in the ways that Beard hopes we can. We hear this potential in the voice of a Holton-Arms senior who said:

My biggest takeaway was something Madame Lagarde said: It's a land of opportunity. The power gap shouldn't discourage me, it should motivate me to claim my spot as an equal, as a woman, and help other women do the same. In evaluating my own leadership qualities and areas of growth, I recognize that I need to make space for my voice rather than waiting for it. As women, we shouldn't wait for our moment of power. We already have that power within us, we just need to harness it and use it for good.

Therein lies the future.

link to article URLOpen article in a new window