The power of female leaders

I was recently invited to teach at a summer school in my area of expertise. My field has several of these summer schools running all across the world, with top researchers offering classes to local students at low costs. It is one of the things I love most about my field, and I was very happy to accept the invitation. This will be a new summer school, organized by a team of women whose goal is to assemble an all-female teaching staff. Initially I wasn’t sure about this concept, but a few events over the past several weeks have made me realize the importance of female leadership.

In the summer, I presented work at a major conference that was organized by a group of women at all career stages, from professors and postdocs, who were doing most of the heavy lifting, to graduate students and undergrads who were manning* the registration desk and chairing the sessions. The conference had seven invited speakers, of which six were female. The overall percent of women participants was about 50%. The session chairs were in charge of moderating the discussion periods, instead of the presenters themselves, and as a result many women were getting called on to ask questions. Women were also vocal during the breaks, and just generally much more active than usual.

Another curious thing that happened was that I presented joint work with a male co-author by myself, since he couldn’t make it, and had an overwhelmingly positive experience. Later reflecting on why, I realized that it was because the questions and the compliments were all directed at me instead of him. It had taken some time to train him to notice these things, but now he is very good at deferring to me on things that are in my area of expertise and including me in every answer.** But what a difference it makes to be truly acknowledged for the work, instead of being an afterthought.

Later in the fall, I was invited to visit two research groups at two different universities that turned out to have a particular property in common: they are both headed by a prominent female researcher, and the group is made up exclusively of female postdocs and a majority of female graduate students. At one of these universities, I gave my first talk in front of an all-female audience.*** I was asked tough questions just like always, but the tone was friendly and the discussion aimed toward building on and improving my ideas. It was a refreshing change from the usual question period, which inevitably contains at least one question whose goal is to show that the questioner is smart and I am not.

These are of course all anecdotes, but I still think they mean something: female leaders empower others around them. The women in these groups had an overwhelming sense that they would be successful. The men I talked to were very happy and had the sense that their situation was completely normal: of course there are great women researchers out there, and of course they are successful.

Going back to the summer school I mentioned at the top of this post, this makes me hopeful that joining a team of women role-models could be a new way to address the representation problem in my field. Nothing needs to be said, we just need to be seen. If students see enough female instructors organizing and teaching great courses, what other conclusion could they be led to other than that this is the normal course of events?

What do you think? Are these all-female opportunities important? Have you ever participated in such an event, and if so, what did you think about it?

* The irony of this verb choice is not lost on me.
** Also every email. Curiously, people are much more likely to email just him and not me, and also to hit “reply” instead of “reply-all,” if the result is that I am not cc-ed on the email. He is almost never excluded. He and I are peers, and he is not my senior, in case you are wondering. But I digress.
*** To be clear, this was not by design. Several male professors and students were around, but happened not to be able to attend my talk.


9 thoughts on “The power of female leaders

  1. Great post and a good conversation topic. I’m an advocate for empowering women in STEM fields. I agree it is important that as women we stick together and help each other. When I was an undergrad, graduate student and even today I participated in women in STEM opportunities. As a woman and STEM I look forward to networking with other women and hearing other women’s stories.

  2. great post. I never realized how good I had it in undergrad, with all female mentors, until I graduated and went into industry in my field — <5% scientist peers were women, 0 of the managers/lead scientists in my division were. I was miserable in the culture there. Then I changed jobs to work with team that was all female. It had a very different tone and I was much happier. Like your stories, anecdotal, but there is pattern and a truth to those experiences, however singular.

  3. Great post, interesting the change in behavior in the presence and absence of your colleague. We are so unaware of how our biases make themselves known, until an experience like this gives you that “click” moment.

    Oh, and a good non-gendered word for “manning” is “staffing” (“operating” or “running” if you don’t want to imply that they are paid staff).

    • Good point — “staffing” would have worked here. I chose to keep the word that first came to mind as a kind of reminder to myself that even as I was thinking about gender equality, language was getting the better of me. I find it somewhat alarming, because I know that most people don’t spend nearly as much time thinking about these things as I do. As you say, it takes an extra effort to notice our own biases.

  4. Thanks for sharing. I work as an IT professional and it uplifting to see women doing amazing work around me. Viewing their progression and work has an empowering impact on me. On a related note, I have found that female leaders challenge me more. They know I’m smart and capable so expectations are set accordingly. This does not mean that I haven’t worked with male leaders who challenge me, because I have. What it does mean is that the genders prejudices of my ability are not part of the work experience as often. (There have been exceptions)

  5. I very much loved this post. I recently wrote a post on my blog about how men should act more like women, instead of the usual advice we give for women to be more aggressive, etc. ( I think we spend a lot of time trying to advise women how to act like men, when really, a lot of that macho BS is what makes science un-fun, scary, and harder than needed. Being supportive is not the same as being weak.

    • Thanks for sharing your post! I completely agree that there are many ways in which acting “like a woman” benefits everyone. We should start valuing what women do more.

  6. Great post! I just returned from a very specific mentoring-style conference for women in physical oceanography (MPOWIR – It’s an organization that’s fully funded by NSF and ONR for the specific purpose of helping women at the point when they start to leave the “pipeline”, as they move into postdocs and beyond.

    I was amazed at how much the conference did for me. There were about 30 junior scientists (last year PhD through postdocs, all women), and 15 senior scientists (about even split between men & women). They covered topics from research, presentations, networking, collaborating, grant writing, etc… all within the umbrella of helping us and relating to us.

    The program has been running for over a decade, and they’ve published some results on the estimated impact: . It would be a good resource, if someone is trying to start a similar program in a different field.

    • This is an excellent resource, thanks for sharing it. I attended a similar kind of event in my last year as a graduate student. It consisted of roughly 30 women, mostly last year PhD and some postdocs in STEM fields, and probably about 15-20 different women were brought in for panel discussions over two days to discuss topics very similar to the ones you mention.

      It was incredibly enlightening. First, everyone in the room was just so supportive. The women in the audience seemed a lot more prone to asking questions than if a man was in the room (I know I was). And I still consult the materials we received whenever I hit a rough spot. None of the materials are online, unfortunately, but the general details and program for this year’s installment are: If anyone reading this is interested in organizing an event like this, all I can say is that everyone I know found it incredibly beneficial.

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