I remember standing in the hotel lobby like it was yesterday. As a young leader, I walked up to two male colleagues, both friends, and posed a question for conversation about my work. Both jumped in eagerly, talking over me in order to speak. I tried to get a word in several times but was interrupted. I was shorter than both and began to realize that they weren’t even making eye contact with me anymore. After trying at least five times to get into the conversation I had started, I finally walked away. I don’t think either of them meant to shut me out, but that is what happened. Early experiences like this made me hungry for ways to grow as a woman leader and aware that I had a lot to learn.
Challenges women in leadership face
Many women face significant external hurdles. You may be in a context where women have not led often and so women’s ways of leading are not noticed, cultivated, or even valued. You may also find yourself in settings where the style of getting things done and making decisions seems unfamiliar, opaque, or unwelcoming. Although our society has changed dramatically in the past 50 years in relation to gender roles, many of our ministry and work environments were not developed with communication and conversation styles of both genders in mind.
Many women also face significant internal challenges. Some are afraid to stand up assertively or negotiate thoughtfully for their point of view. Self-doubt, lack of female role models, and fear of appearing overly aggressive can impact a woman’s desire to utilize her gifts and her voice in leadership. And research suggests that when women speak confidently, in contrast to men, they receive more mixed messages and less affirmation for appropriate contributions, potentially leading them to believe their voice is not worth sharing.
Responding to challenges and leading authentically as a woman
Women who want to lead must find ways to engage authentically as leaders. If you are called to take on a role, you must be a full steward of the role, not holding back your gifts because of your gender. If you have been given a gift, you are called to exercise it for the sake of the Kingdom, out of your gendered, human identity.
How can you learn to lead and speak authentically as a woman?
Seek confidence in your calling, your gifts, and your values. What has God called you to be and do? Find your identity in being a beloved daughter of God, not pleasing others or protecting yourself from challenges.
Seek role models and mentors. Look for people you trust, both men and women, who can help you develop a genuine and confident leadership style and voice.
Look for feedback from trusted peers and leaders about how you appear as you work and lead, and what would allow you to bring your gifts to the table more effectively.
If you are in a setting where the social expectations are unclear, ask others how things work. Explore the unspoken rules. When it is appropriate, don’t be afraid to suggest ways that a group or team could function to include all voices more thoughtfully. This is Kingdom work!
Read about leadership in general and about women in leadership in particular. One book I like is Making Room for Leadership by MaryKate Morse, which addresses the way we use space and present ourselves as leaders.
Today I have the privilege of counseling and mentoring many talented women as they discover their leadership and their voice. As you develop your gifts as an authentic leader, God will use you to serve other men and women and advance the work of the Kingdom.
Nancy Pedulla is the Director for Leadership and Talent Development for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Before holding this role, she served InterVarsity’s Graduate and Faculty Ministries for twelve years. She holds a BS in Psychology and a MEd in International and Development Education, both from the University of Pittsburgh. Her ministry passions include whole life discipleship, men and women in partnership, leadership development, team building, and coaching. She is passionate about the development of women.
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