Beyond Sisterhood

Beyond Sisterhood
President Susan Aldridge of University of Maryland University College (UMUC) delivered this keynote address, titled “Beyond Sisterhood” and delivered at University System of Maryland Women’s Forum Annual Conference. Adelphi, Maryland. The Keynote was delivered by President Susan Aldridge of University of Maryland, University College.

I cannot help but think back to an era in the not too distant past when women like us might have found solidarity in the concept of “sisterhood”…bonded by the shared experience of inequality and energized by collective activism…as we set out to break down the barriers of gender discrimination.

At the time, those were indeed real issues for women everywhere; and still are even today in many parts of the world. Which is why legions of us over the years have sympathized with the cause out of self-determination, self-actualization…and at times even self-survival.

But now, several decades later, it is truly an exciting time to be a woman in higher education. In fact, we have opened many doors and taken our places at many tables that were once considered to be for men only.
Just think. Over the last 20 years, the percentage of women who serve as college and university presidents has risen from just below 10% to nearly 25%…breaking through to the top in some of the largest and most prestigious universities in the world.

Harvard…the University of Pennsylvania…MIT…Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute… Princeton…the University of Michigan…and the University of Miami…just to name a few.

It’s also becoming far more common to see women serving as provosts, vice-provosts, deans, and academic department heads, as well as chief financial and operating officers.

Granted. There is still a ways to go, and undoubtedly a few barriers left to hurtle in the field of higher education. But as Virginia Woolf once wrote…it’s not enough to merely take our place at the table. We must also be prepared to create it…and once we have, to make it work for us.

So I would propose that it’s time to look beyond the sisterhood…as we embrace a new vision for leadership. One that is based not merely on gender…but rather on ability and character; not simply on parity…but rather on inclusiveness and collaboration. And one that empowers us to control our own destiny rather than leaving it in somebody else’s hands.

We have only to look to other less enlightened parts of the world…where although women face enormous disadvantages…they have also provided us with some of our most compelling insights. Certainly one of the most impressive I have seen comes from Dr. Massouda Jalal…an exceptionally courageous woman who ran as Afghanistan’s only female presidential candidate in 2004.

In addressing the immense challenges and emerging options for professional women in her own country, Dr. Jalal once said:
…women’s leadership is not just a matter of mandate. It has to be bought with a clear vision, fired by commitment, nourished by credibility, galvanized by performance, and cradled incessantly in the bosom of power. It should stand in the bedrock of a politicized constituency, and on a platform of results that would benefit not only women, but everyone in society.

What Dr. Jalal so very clearly articulated is a solid framework for leadership period… and one that underscores the very attributes that define what I will call our leadership quotient…or LQ, if you will.

To begin with, effective leaders are intensely committed to following their passion…and clearly willing to push the envelope in doing so. They also have an inherent propensity for collaboration…always surrounding themselves with talented people and empowering them to act on their unique experience and diverse perspectives.

And while successful leaders are never afraid to embrace their power…they also understand how to use it wisely.

As women, I believe that we are actually wired for these attributes given our natural instincts, life experience, and well-developed skills. Indeed, there is even data to suggest that at least in some professions, women may actually express a few of them with greater frequency.

For example, a research study conducted among 700 college and university presidents of both genders, revealed that, as a group, the women tended to be more innovative in exercising their leadership.

What’s more, the source of this entrepreneurial acumen may in fact be an artifact of gender discrimination. For one thing, the women presidents in general seemed more willing to promote diversity…forming closer relationships with those they perceived to be different. For another, they were more likely to make decisions and take risks that, if unsuccessful, could potentially cost them their jobs.

Although some of these women have distinguished themselves as natural leaders, a fair number of them have carefully cultivated their LQ under the tutelage of others, while coming up through the ranks. But I would be willing to bet that in nearly every instance, they began that journey to the top by following their passion.

As successful women, we all have a certain fire in the belly that motivates us as human beings; while also energizing us as leaders. Indeed, passion determines our character, shapes our integrity, and fuels our most important achievements.

Put simply, when you love what you do, you can’t wait to get up every morning to do it…and that exuberance drives us to focus on what we can accomplish…rather than dwell on what we might be missing.

As the president of a university with more than 93,000 students in 28 countries around the world, I am literally on the go from early in the morning to late at night…just about every day of the year. For some, that level of commitment might be excessive….but for me it’s exhilarating because I am absolutely passionate about what I do and the difference that it makes for our students.

And while there are some who counsel me to slow down so that I don’t burn out, I am quick to assure them that those words have never been a part of my vocabulary. Which brings me to my next point…

Passion also makes us far more likely to extend ourselves beyond the job description. That means earning the credentials and doing the hard work it inevitably takes to establish our value to the organization.

Let’s face it. As women, we have become remarkably adept at keeping a lot of balls in the air.

We successfully hold down demanding jobs — sometimes commuting two and three hours a day in the process – while also raising children who need our close attention and running households that are really small corporations in disguise.

We are also constantly looking for ways to improve ourselves…both professionally and personally…often enrolling in classes and training programs to learn a new skill or upgrade our resumes. And as if that’s not enough…we volunteer our precious time and energy to further all sorts of worthy causes.

Now combine this talent for multi-tasking with the single-minded focus of passionate commitment – and we begin seeing our leadership quotient rise exponentially. It’s this winning equation that enables us to successfully undertake what we call stretch assignments…or projects that catapult us out of our comfort zones…by pushing our limits and testing our skills.

And even though these assignments may sometimes seem challenging in the face of everything else we are doing…they are absolutely essential if we want to break away from the pack. Because they enable us to demonstrate the courage to tackle something different…along with the faith that we can make it work…no matter how long it takes.

I have always been the first woman to step into every single management position I have held over the years. Now while intelligence, academic credentials, and talent had a lot to do with getting my foot in the door…I also accepted the fact that I would have to work harder than any of my male peers to open that door all the way.

So I invariably put in more hours than they did and volunteered for stretch assignments whenever the opportunity presented itself…all of which quickly paid off in terms of promotions and salary increases. Yet while I usually didn’t make as much money as the men, I was always promoted faster than they were. Still more important, however, I earned the respect of even the most opinionated among them.

For many years, I conducted due diligence for new international university teaching locations in more than 20 countries…negotiating contracts, developing budgets, hiring faculty, and running programs. Of course, these negotiation teams were made up of men…and in each case, I was the first woman they had to deal with in this capacity.

So as you might imagine, there were some awkward moments. In more than a few cases, my male colleagues opened the introduction by telling me about all the good shopping locations…presumably because that’s what women want to do. In other instances, they emailed the university chancellor to inquire if I would have a male counterpart along to conduct the business at hand.

But in every one of these negotiations, I proved my value and earned their respect by working shoulder to shoulder with them for at least 18 hours a day. And never once did I ask to go shopping.

Effective leaders also exude a certain collaborative spirit…always eager to cross the boundaries of age, status, rank, and race in surrounding themselves with the very best people they can find…regardless of gender. Individuals who cover the diversity spectrum…bringing with them a rich assortment of ideas and opinions.

And once again, that is where as women, our highly attuned relational skills help foster the teamwork that is so very essential to achieving a common goal or vision.

It’s also a great way to open doors for other talented women and minorities in the organization…because it allows you to set clear expectations around team performance. To provide ample opportunities for professional and intercultural development. And to encourage collaborative ventures that promote leadership potential from within the team itself.

Of course, as enlightened women who are literally transforming the practice of leadership, we must also understand what that means within the context of power. Under our new framework, power should always be as a platform for accomplishment, rather than a mechanism for control…as an exercise that is engaging, ethical, and purposeful…rather than manipulative, corrupt, and self-serving.

Now, that’s certainly not to say that power should be equivocal or even particularly nurturing. Indeed, most of us look for leaders who do not waver in their decisions…or candy-coat their pronouncements. And we are far more willing to follow those at the top who challenge us to greater heights and nobler outcomes by telling us loud and clear: There’s the hill. It’s big and it’s steep; but I know how to get us to the other side.

Yet in spite of our apparent need for direction, we are also looking for leaders who use their power to help us discover and realize our own…by creating an environment of mutual respect and shared accountability.

Leaders who truly guide with their lives…and in doing so, closely model both the vision and the principles they espouse.

That means exercising tremendous care with the resources entrusted to our oversight…the people who work with us…the money we manage…and the institutional reputation and goodwill we have been asked to sustain. It also means holding ourselves to the same standards and work ethic we expect from the people we lead. Let me give you a good example from my own experience.

When I first arrived at UMUC four years ago, to take over the reins, the university was facing perhaps the greatest challenge of its institutional life…enrolling 9,000 new students to meet the daunting growth targets set by Maryland’s Governor, the system’s Board of Regents, and the legislature. Although most of those watching predicted that it couldn’t be done, I was determined that we would succeed.

Because there is no one “department” or “office” of growth at UMUC, my mission was to turn the enrollment drive into a university-wide team effort.
So I rolled up my sleeves and plunged headlong into the task…asking my faculty and staff to do the same. And to a person they did…stepping up to the plate admirably, I might add…working long hours and pushing the envelope every step of the way.

In just six months…and much to the surprise of everyone in the state’s university system…we not only met our target, we met the following year’s, as well…bringing in 10,000 new students…or more than are enrolled on all but a very few campuses in Maryland.

And in putting out the fire, so to speak, more than a few of my team members emerged as leaders…exercising even greater initiative and producing increasingly better results in the months and years that followed.

As leaders, we will be asked to put out our share of fires…to harness their heat around a transformational vision…and channel their energy into higher levels of performance.

So in addition to understanding the nature and character of power, we must also be prepared to wholeheartedly embrace its heat…to know its truth and speak its language…while never shying away from its enormous energy.

That’s something women have not always been encouraged to do. So from time to time we yield our power to others…just because we are afraid of being burned. And by avoiding the risk, we may also fail to recognize the opportunity that comes with creating a place at the head table.

Therefore, in closing, I would like to share the wise words of author and international lecturer, Marianne Williamson…who wrote:
“Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you…We were born to make manifest the glory that is within us. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”