In honor of Women’s History Month, local nonprofit Leading From Within joined with Touchstone Central Coast to host a virtual presentation and panel discussion recently called Women in Leadership: A Discussion for Everyone.
“The pandemic of 2020, unfortunately, has created a loss of nearly 3 million women in the workforce,” said Touchstone Central Coast co-creator Emily Smith.
“This past year threatens to wipe out all the progress made over the last several decades to close the gender gaps and if not addressed will exacerbate existing inequalities,” she said. Smith facilitated the discussion along with co-creator and business partner Diane Adam, a Leading From Within Katherine Harvey Fellows alumna.
The program and panel provided an outline for Servant Leadership, a model that empowers the team over the individual, and examined how to support and create more positive environments for women in the workforce.
Panelists included Connie Alexander, founder/co-executive director of Gateway Educational Services; Nancy Gastelum, associate professional clinical counselor and nonprofit executive; Petra Gomez, Ed.D candidate at USC and program manager, the Santa Barbara Foundation; Sarah Kirwan, CEO/founder of Eye Level Communications; Pamela Macal, CEO McDonald’s Central Coast; Simonne Mitchelson, South Coast estate manager for Jackson Family Wines; and Sevelyn VanRonk, Ph.D candidate at Claremont Graduate University and senior manager of People Strategy of BlueShield, CA.
“Covid-19 has disrupted the workplace in ways we’ve never seen before,” said Smith. “The boundaries between work and home have blurred, workplace structures have shifted, employees lost jobs experiencing financial distress, and burnout has become rampant.”
Smith said it’s been particularly challenging for women, who were more likely to be laid off or furloughed, and who often struggle more intensely with the balance of childcare and work.
“We expect women to work like they don’t have children and raise children as if they don’t work” was a quote attributed to Amy Westervelt and used in the presentation to demonstrate some of the challenges that women face.
These challenges can present an opportunity to reevaluate and restore critical leadership qualities. Smith queried the 90 zoom participants who shared qualities they believe define a strong leader, and discussed timeless leadership attributes and the benefits of a service leader mindset.
First coined by AT&T executive Robert K. Greenleaf, servant leadership turns the idea of traditional workplace leadership on its head, focusing on empowering and uplifting others rather than commanding from a position of power or authority.
“Servant leaders prioritize other people’s well-being and growth, share power, and enable their team to grow, develop and perform to the best of their ability,” said Smith.
This approach aims to increase retention rates, provide greater collaboration, create a more positive work environment, support a culture of belonging and foster leadership everywhere.
The presentation focused on increasing and honoring women in the workplace. Smith noted that companies that don’t encourage women to join them are missing out on talents and abilities of over half the population.
“Multiplicity of perspectives can spark creativity and innovation and inclusivity boosts morale and opportunity,” she said. She quoted a study by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company that found the most gender-diverse companies are 21 percent more likely to experience above average profitability.
A panel of female leaders candidly shared thoughts and experiences after the 40-minute presentation, reflecting upon their own successes, challenges and sources of inspiration.
VanRonk revealed a core message learned from her mentor: that when we say yes to things that are draining us, we have less time for things that could benefit us. “No is a complete sentence.”
“The best leadership gift we have is our time,” said Macal. “How you choose to spend time with your people and how you choose to make time for your family are integral,” she said, noting that showing up, being supportive and making time for Sunday family dinners is essential.
Alexander, who is participating in the Courage to Lead program at Leading From Within, shared wisdom she refers to as “holy boldness.”
“In navigating situations, you have to be able to acknowledge and name things that you perceive as wrong because if you don’t then you end up pushing back, and so the lesson I learned is to walk right into those tough conversations and show up with some holy boldness,” she said.
Kirwan shared a story about the mentor at her first job out of college and how her female boss instructed her solely on what to wear (stockings, suit and heels). It’s a lesson that’s informed her own mentorship style, which Kirwan said concentrates on empowerment, building confidence, having empathy and teaching young woman to own their value — with or without the heels.
The panel also talked about impressions of what Leading with Love means to them. “Being honest, having integrity, and giving back to the community by providing resources and support to others,” said Gomez.
“Self-care is critical,” said Mitchelson. She said she always felt “other” coming from an immigrant family raised in a majority white Michigan town. This feeling followed her to the Central Coast, where she said it’s difficult to find people who look like her in management, or even in the wine tasting rooms.
“It’s important to know and love yourself and to bring that love into your leadership,” she said.
Gastelum stressed the importance of mental health, crediting her own meditation practice with granting her the space to focus and reflect. She also encouraged the value of hope as being a catalyst for vision and fortitude.
“For me, it’s that loving moment when you can put the oxygen back in the room after watching it go out,” said Alexander. “It’s giving breath and making space to ensure the little brown girls that I serve get the equity they deserve.”