ON FEMALE LEADERSHIP
This September marks the beginning of my third year with the EMPOWER lab. By some stroke of luck, I entered into this research space as a wide-eyed freshman, knowing absolutely nothing. My first year and a half was marked by my own insecurities; on one hand, I irrationally compared myself to the medical and masters’ students in the lab, feeling inadequate and useless, on the other hand, I often felt the load of imposter’s syndrome, where I felt as if I had no right to a place at the table to begin with. This past spring however, I was promoted to Associate Director of Research (ADR) and suddenly I was one of the most senior lab members. I was the face of the lab during interviews, and public events. I was in foreign territory. In those first months of being ADR, I think I was in denial. I knew that there were people who believed in me, and I knew that I had demonstrated leadership ability--but there was a strange disconnect between those facts and my confidence. Like all things, it came down to insecurity.
During a summer lecture, I learned about how women are socially primed to compete against each other for the one ‘female’ spot. It turns out, researchers have found that envy and rivalry in the workplace are particularly severe among females. Unlike men, who often vie to be the best, regardless of gender, women will often compare themselves to other women first. In the extreme, women can become ‘mean girls’ and create hostile workplace environments. This toxicity is compounded by the fact that merely being a firm leader and being a self-identifying woman are culturally conflicted.
In my new position, I was not only serving as a team leader, but as a mentor, a rule keeper, an administrator, and an ally to over 10 research assistants at a time (most of them female). Here I was, with some of the greatest research opportunities of my career so far, and I couldn’t keep my jealousy and self-destruction in check.
So I began to re-evaluate my leadership style and remove the focus from myself and back onto my team members. I began ending assignment emails with a note about the progress so far and the excitement to come. I started consciously thanking team members for the specific contributions they made to the project that week. I made an effort to openly state when I made a mistake, or did not understand something. I tried to compliment people privately and in public. And slowly, albeit I felt a little ridiculous at first, I began to feel better. The opportunities of the world did not evaporate when I congratulated my peers on news of manuscript writing. No one judged me harshly for not understanding endometriosis instantly. Encouraging my peers to develop and contribute their unique skills did not undermine what I brought to the table. I discovered that there was in fact, enough room. By centering myself on the overall progress of a project, I was able to see not only what my teammates contributed, but the vital role I played as well. Too often, academia, research, and science in general are narrowly defined by individual successes in distinct disciplines. Perhaps the most important lesson of my time in the EMPOWER lab so far is that the future of science lies in collaboration. New ideas will come from, me the future psychologist, working with the MPH and MPP students, the doctors, the social workers, the lawyers--success is interdisciplinary and multifaceted; there is enough room for all of us.
In the time of “herepeated” (when a man repeats what a woman says and suddenly the claim receives attention) and “mansplaining” (when a man explains a concept to a woman that she already understands), it’s easy to see why some of us women might fight tooth and nail for a spot on a stage that appears to be built for no one at all. But, to extend the metaphor, there is enough room on the stage for all of us.
There is enough room to congratulate your peers.
There is enough room to admit your faults and mistakes.
There is enough room to support each other in celebration and rejection.
There is enough room for diverse skills and abilities.
There is enough room to believe in yourself and your peers.