(From The Campus Lantern – September 18, 2014)
On Monday, September 15, Eastern’s Women’s Center and the CT Humanities’ program, Connecticut at Work, held the Women in Leadership Panel in the Student Center Theatre. Jessica Carso, Development Director of CT Humanities, moderated the event. CT Humanities is a nonprofit organization that has been servicing the community for about forty years. The main goals of the organization are to provide statewide funding for the arts; to advocate for the humanities; and to offer direct service programming, such as the Women in Leadership Panel.
Carso started off the panel with stunning statistics: Although women make up 50% of the population, 60% of undergraduate and graduate students and 47% of the labor force, there is a staggering misrepresentation of women in leadership positions. She stated that only 14% of executive officers are women. However, she noted that Connecticut is ranked the third best state for women to live and work in; the state is also in the 20th percentile for its status on women’s rights, education, and family planning.
After the statistics were laid out, each panelist was introduced. Panelists were Maryam Elahi, Chief Executive Officer of the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut; Mae Flexer, State Representative of the 44th Assembly District of Killingly and Plainfield; Christine Pina, Vice President of Institutional Advancement of the University of Hartford; Camilla Ross, President and Co-founder of the Emerson Theater Collective; and Carolyn Treiss, Executive Director for the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women.
Each panelist went down the line and shared short introductions about themselves. For example, Elahi was born and raised in Iran until she was 16 years old. Flexer’s mother was born and raised in Ireland, then moved to the United States so her children could get a better education. Pina was a first generation college student, and the first feminist she knew was her father. Ross was from Massachusetts, had six siblings and both of her parents were nurses. Treiss, who was last in the line of panelists, decided to reflect on what the other panelists said: She noticed how all of their stories related to hers in some way and how there was something universal about their “experiences as women growing into leadership positions.”
The theme that was posed to the panelists and the audience was how society can work to change the realities of women’s leadership in the country.
The first question that was asked to the panelists was why they think there are so few women in leadership positions and how the statistics can be changed. Elahi simply stated that we need to raise the expectations for both men and women in the United States, not just women. Ross agreed, saying that women can do so much more; in order for this to happen, men need to step in and help to level the playing field. She noted how men help one another to lift themselves up and women need to learn to do the same: “When women lift each other up and grow, men see that.”
Another question that was discussed was what women and students need to think about in order to help make this rise in leadership happen. Without hesitation, Treiss stated that women need to know how to verbalize what they want and where they want to go. Elahi urged that the sky is the limit and the importance of pursuing a career based on what one is passionate about. Ross suggested to the audience members that they make a vision board to help remind themselves that where they stand right now is exactly where they are supposed to be. Pina made an important addition in that it is alright to change your mind and be unsure of what path you want to follow. She stressed the importance of friends and a support system.
Lastly, the moderator asked each woman to state one piece of advice on how to start networking with mentors. Ross and Treiss agreed that networking starts in college; they suggested students reach out to mentors on campus. Treiss also stated the importance of volunteering in making connections within the community. Flexer made sure the audience knew they should always express gratitude to those who helped get them to where they are; she felt it is important to let people know they are appreciated. Pina added, “When looking for a mentor, find someone who will tell you the truth and be brutally honest with you.” She believed a mentor and mentee relationship is supposed to be a safe, open one.
After the initial questions, audience members were asked to share any questions they had come up with for the panelists. One question that was asked was how women can learn from situations in which other people might use their failure against them. Flexer stressed that it can be important to try and change toxic environments, while Ross stated the importance of simply not working in toxic environments. Elahi suggested that humans learn from mistakes, not successes and that it is important to take risks and make sure you have a support system.
The panel ended on an inspirational note. Students in the audience were encouraged to share email addresses with the panelists. In doing so, students took the first step in starting a possible mentee-mentor relationship with the empowering women leaders.