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Annarose Zelano
Oct 5, 2016

RISD LEADS - Who Does She Think She Is?

Oct 5, 2016 by Annarose Zelano

          On Monday, September 26th, RISD LEADS welcomed Associate Director for Student Diversity and Development at Towson University, Mahnoor Ahmed, and Director of Student Activities at Maryland Institute College of Art, Karol Martinez-Doane. Their interactive session used the many harmful expectations and perceptions that our society has created towards women leaders and how to break them down as a case study for the many different identities that are affected by a similar stigma. One of the initial things brought up at the beginning of the session was the importance that this was not just a women’s issue and that intersectionality and the many identities one holds all come into play and have equal importance.


          The session was started off showing a video called The Representation Project: Rewrite the Story which was about the messages that we are given starting at a young age about gender identity in the United States. The room was then opened up to share out where and from who people have heard these messages. Some examples shared were school, family, social media, commercials and businesses.

          Next, Karol and Mahnoor had attendees shout out different qualities that come to mind when they think of an effective leader. The attendees then were broken up into groups where they were instructed to take the list of positive leader traits and break categorize them as either a “masculine” quality or “feminine” quality. Without giving it too much thought, they had to make a quick decision and place each quality into what they care commonly associated as through different messages, experiences, or other societal factors. Once they were done, the group shared out their thoughts and reflections on what they were just asked to do. Some reactions were described as mindblowing, weird, and uncomfortable to have to genderize a leadership quality. It can be especially difficult and uncomfortable because it pushes those who are gender non-conforming into a box that they do not identify as.

          The truth of the matter is, that no matter how one categorizes the qualities, there is no right or wrong answer. Everyone has their own definition of what might be a “masculine” quality and a “feminine” quality and at the same time everyone has qualities that fall under both “masculine” and “feminine” categories. It’s mainly about how society generalizes and associates these qualities as either “masculine” or “feminine”.

          If one “deviates” from their expected qualities, depending on who they are, they are looked at in a different way. If a person in the dominant group deviates, they are rewarded. For example, in this case if a male takes on a more “feminine” quality, say empathy, he can be seen as more respectable and relatable. However, on the flipside of things, if a person in the subordinate group deviates, they are punished. For example, in this case if a female takes on a more “masculine” quality, say confidence or delegation, they can be seen as stuck up or bossy. An example of this can be seen in the 2016 Presidential Election with obvious examples of the “double-blind” where two people running for the same job that are opposite genders are treated differently for the same kind of behavior. As we get older, it gets harder to not conform or fall into these unfair, biased mindsets about identity because it is built into the very infrastructures that we live and work in every day.

          After much discussion, the attendees were asked to think about and write down an example of a negative experience that they have had with a female leader. Next, they were asked to write down some leadership qualities about themselves and then how they could be potentially perceived as a barrier or negative. For example, having empathy could also be perceived as being a pushover or being assertive could also be perceived as being bossy. Finally, after doing some self reflection, the attendees were asked to look back at the negative experience with a female leader they had written down and reflect on how they could have perceived as a positive quality of that leader. This exercise opened the eyes of the attendees and showed the importance of checking oneself for if they are using bias, expectation, and societal barriers to bring down others.
          The session was ended with each attendee writing down a pledge of how they will “rewrite the story” with a practical call to action commitment. Some pledges included educating their friends that were not at the session, standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, and not apologizing for being a successful female leader.