This semester I️ have the pleasure of serving as the Fellowship Vice President for the Rho Chapter of Alpha Phi Omega, or APO. APO is a national, co-ed, service fraternity with core pillars of leadership, friendship, and service.
Because of all that this organization has given me, I️ was excited to run for a leadership position and have the opportunity to give back. What has become the highlight of my service, however, is our executive team. This semester the team is comprised of (almost) all women. Eight out of the nine leadership positions, including president and president-elect, are held by dedicated, passionate, and driven women of our chapter.
Although there is a lot of work still to be done in empowering women into leadership and breaking glass ceilings, there are some encouraging examples that give women like me a role model to look to and learn from.
The “Fab Five” is a group of all-female democratic politicians recently elected to the Colorado Senate to create the first female-led majority caucus in the country. What’s even more notable is their personal, supportive relationships with each other. They encourage one another through daily texts and phone calls, they check-in when someone faces a negative smear TV ad, and they stepped up when one woman came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against a fellow senator, who was later expelled.
Now, I️ realize that some may read this as “mushy”, “weak” or “emotional” – many verbs used to describe women on a daily basis – but if I️ have learned anything from working with a majority female executive team, it’s the importance of empathy.
Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. To say it colloquially, “to walk a mile in another’s shoes”. I️ can’t think of a time this is more important than when assuming the responsibility of leading others. I️ have seen first-hand how our team has tackled issues, concerns and celebrations within APO with empathy.
When a fellow sibling came to us with some concerns about bias within the rush process, I️ watched as our president compassionately and authentically made her feel heard and understood, reflecting back her complaints before giving the counterpoints. Although we had already discussed the issue at length as an executive team, our president didn’t jump to conclusions or dismiss the person’s feelings. She delivered our response with empathy and care.
In no way does this lessen our authority as leaders of the chapter, it does the opposite. In no way was our decision unclear or indirect. But both parties involved left feeling resolved.
Too often traits associated with empathy are confused with weakness. Things like caring, sensitivity or tolerance. This probably stems from their “feminine nature”, and our society’s tendency to devalue things in life deemed “feminine”. (Just look at the average teacher’s salary – people, usually women, who literally raise the next generation.)
Leadership is thought of as a masculine trait. Women in leadership positions are the exception instead of the rule. There’s a riddle that goes something like, “A father and his son are in a car crash and the father dies. The son is rushed to the ER and has to go into surgery. When he is on the table, the surgeon looks at him and says ‘I️ can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son.’ How is this possible?”
The creativity in responses to solve this riddle is honestly impressive. Or today, the “other dad” is a popular choice. But the answer is simply the boy’s mother. She’s the surgeon. But we aren’t bred to think that way.
Working with a majority female executive team has taught me important lessons in empathy and effective leadership. It has given me a picture of people who look like me and think like me affecting positive change. I have seen what more women in power could look like for the future.
I️ do not wish to see men kicked out of all leadership opportunities. But I️ do believe that by creating greater equality in representation of who and what a leader really looks like, we can change the nature of our society’s bosses, decision-makers, conversation leaders, choices and policies for the better.