Learning to Lead
“If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” once asserted by Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, is one of my favorite quotes when it comes to women in the workplace. As a young black woman beginning her public health career, I crave advice and direction from other women of color in leadership positions.
Last spring, when Dean Marlyn Delva and Dr. Raygine DiAquoi hosted “Dinner with the Dean: Women of Color in Leadership,” an evening centered around a conversation about women of color in leadership, I quickly registered. There was overwhelming interest with almost double the capacity RSVP'ing, but I was fortunate enough to be randomly selected as one of the 15 participants. It was the perfect opportunity to gain insight on how other women of color in public health sought mentors, advocated for themselves, and dealt with microaggressions—verbal and nonverbal slights that target persons based upon their marginalized group membership. This event marked a singular moment in which multiple truths were made clear to myself and to the women around me.
Although public health is a field dominated by women, there is a lack of resources and discussions addressing female leadership and involvement in the public health landscape. According to the 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 80 percent of employees who work in healthcare are women, but only 40 percent of key healthcare industry decision-makers are women. Because many of the top positions are occupied by men, it‘s likely that the experiences and voices of women may not be included in decision-making processes.
As women and as graduate students at the Mailman School of Public Health, my classmates and I are at a critical juncture in our academic and professional development. Mailman is exploring how to provide leadership development for its students, and in order to meet the needs of the student body and the changing landscape of public health, we launched Columbia Emerging Women’s Leadership (CEWL). Our goal as a student group is to augment future leadership opportunities available to those who identify as women at Columbia.
Women face unique challenges related to health and success in the public health industry, and these challenges are often compounded by intersectional factors such as race, sexual orientation, and religion, among others. One way to address the lack of opportunities for advancement is to engage in transformational dialogue and to use women-centered experiences as the foundation for tangible skill-building in order to create greater and more permanent spaces for women’s ideas and leadership in public health.
At Mailman, there are numerous examples of inspirational women’s leadership in our faculty whose expertise we hope to leverage for our own development. One of our goals is to share tools and opportunities to expand leadership skills during this critical learning period in order to prepare us for success in the workforce and for larger roles throughout our careers.
Getting a new student organization off the ground is not without its challenges, but Dean Delva and Dr. DiAquoi guided us and gave us the support we needed. CEWL’s first event, “What Do You Need to Lead?”, was used as a needs-assessment to hear from Mailman women about what they would like to see from an organization dedicated to building leadership. We learned that our peers wanted tips on how to navigate and disrupt the patriarchy, how to be seen as assertive rather than aggressive, and better negotiation tactics. This feedback informed our second event, “Workplace Bootcamp: A Mini-Series for Women to Start (and Stay) Strong On the Job,” which invited faculty to provide advice on developing an elevator pitch, navigating gender dynamics in the workplace, interviewing skills, and handling workplace harassment. Both events received great response from our faculty collaborators and CEWL members.
With CEWL, we strive to encompass the values and promote the inclusion of women of all backgrounds and stand wary of the erasure of women of underrepresented racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender identities. Patriarchy exists around us, and we challenge that structure by engaging in open and inclusive dialogue about privilege, oppression, power, and opportunities for all. We know these conversations may be difficult, and we are committed to challenging ourselves and those around us to engage honestly and productively in the work for greater equality and representation of women at the highest levels of public health leadership. Learning from women who have come before us and supporting those who will come after is crucial. In order to break the glass ceiling, we must all use our collective strength. Until then, we will continue to bring our own folding chairs.
Audrey Nuamah is a 2018 MPH candidate in Health Policy Management. She received her BA in Health and Societies, Public Health from the University of Pennsylvania.
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