6 Empowering Tips for Every Woman From Smith College President Kathleen McCartney

6 Tips for Women Leaders From Smith College President Kathleen McCartney

In May, Smith College President Kathleen McCartney spoke at Northwestern University as part of the new Provost’s Advisory Council on Women Faculty. Her talk, “Walls, Words and Ways Forward: Creating Opportunity for Women Leaders,” tackled the struggles and barriers women and girls face, which are continually compounded by the persistence of gender stereotypes and the negative or insufficient representation of women in the media and pop culture. But, McCartney wasn’t about to waste time dwelling on the problems without coming up with some solutions. She’s all for empowering women and girls to face their challenges head-on, and had plenty to say about how to do just that.

McCartney, the 11th president at Smith and former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (McCartney was only the fifth woman dean in Harvard’s history), was quick to point out that there’s plenty to be positive about: Women have certainly made some massive strides to get where they are today.

“It’s worth saying that it is certainly the case that women have made tremendous progress in all sectors including academia. I can’t even tell you how much things have changed since 1982 when I was a first year assistant professor at Harvard,” she says. But, she also noted that women are nowhere near done with this struggle. “So much has changed for the better, but I’m going to try to convince you that we have a long way to go.”

So where are some of the places women have the most work to do?

Pop Culture

McCartney challenged the film industry by evaluating this year’s Academy Awards nominees through the lens of the Bechdel Test, a method of evaluating films that asks:

1. Does the film have at least two women in it … (“Talk about a low bar here,” McCartney says.)

2. Who talk to each other …

3. About something other than a man?

Four of the nine Best Picture nominees this year passed (“Arrival,” “Fences,” “Hidden Figures” and “La La Land”). Of course, that’s a small sample size, so McCartney then discussed an assessment of 1,794 movies made from 1970-2013. Only half of those movies passed.

In March, Gloria Steinem wrote an op-ed for The New York Times titled “Women Have ‘Chick Flicks.’ What About Men?” McCartney responded with her own op-ed titled “Calling Out Sexism.” In it she wrote, “In study after study, psychologists have demonstrated that we internalize negative cultural stereotypes, even about our own identities. For this reason, we need to call out negative tropes about women — weak, passive, subservient and focused on men — in films and other media for our children, girls and boys alike, as well as for ourselves.”

In her talk, McCartney referred to Beverly Tatum’s use of the metaphor “breathing in smog” to describe the process of the internalization of stereotypes. Tatum was discussing racism, but McCartney says we also breathe in the smog of sexism.

The Workplace

McCartney noted that women make up 26 percent of college presidents, 19 percent of congressional seats, 8 percent of state governors, 6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 3 percent of creative directors.

So what’s happening here? Why are women so underrepresented in the work force? McCartney references a resume study that suggests it has a lot more to do with gender discrimination than any disparity in credentials. In the study, which was done by Skidmore College social psychologist Corinne Moss-Racusin, scientists were given identical resumes, but some had the applicant name John and some had the name Jennifer. Jennifer was ultimately deemed less competent and was offered $4,000 less than John. This was true for both male and female scientists looking at resumes.

McCartney argues that it’s not glass ceilings women have to contend with in the workplace so much as glass walls. “The glass ceiling just applies to these people who do something for the first time, like the first woman president of an Ivy League school was Judith Rodin,” she says. “These are big deal moments. But what about the rest of us? How do the walls push us in?”

“If women stay boxed in by the norms of our gender — passive, gentle and congenial — we may not be viewed as leadership material,” McCartney wrote in another New York Times op-ed. “If women adopt the norms of a leader — commanding, decisive and assertive — we may be punished for being too bossy, too pushy, too strident, too ambitious, too scary.”

So what can we do? McCartney offers six solutions:

1. Make the invisible visible.

McCartney showed a photo of a sign on Smith’s campus that said “Men Working.” The word “men” was covered with a piece of paper that said “people.” “We see these signs and just kind of take it for granted,” McCartney says. “It shows that it’s a man’s world. It says to young girls what you can do and not do in this world. How you call it out is up to you, but I think you need to call some of these things out.”

2. Amplify women’s voices.

McCartney referenced a story about women on President Obama’s staff who didn’t think their voices were being heard. As Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post wrote, “So female staffers adopted a meeting strategy they called ‘amplification’: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.”

3. Start a feminist fight club.

McCartney discussed the book “Feminist Fight Club: An Office Survival Manual for a Sexist Workplace” by Jessica Bennett. She adds that it’s important have a group of people at an organization looking at data and thinking about gender. Women can also have mentors in their organization or come together to help each other and give advice.

4. Include women at the table.

According to Grant Thornton’s report titled “Women in business: the value of diversity,” “Companies with diverse executive boards outperform peers run by all-male boards…” by $655 billion (U.S.).

5. Find male allies.

“This is because men still primarily run the world,” McCartney says.

6. Reflect on your own biases.

McCartney referred to “Blindspot” by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald. This book discussed implicit bias, “which refers to the unconscious attribution of particular qualities to a member of a certain social group.” You can even take a test on the Blindspot website to test your own implicit bias. But how does this hold women back? McCartney showed a cartoon of a man telling a man (who is doing a math problem), “Wow, you suck at math,” and a man telling a woman (who is also doing a math problem), “Wow, girls suck at math.” “We see this in our culture all the time, don’t we?” McCartney asks. “If you ask young girls, they think boys are better at math from a very early age even though there’s no evidence for that.”

As McCartney wrote in an op-ed, “It’s time to take a sledgehammer to the glass walls. The best way to stop coercion is to make the invisible visible by sharing our stories. When we can better name what’s happening, we can begin to change the narrative.”


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Anna Carlson writes the weekly 5 Things to Do column and monthly Recommended Events. A graduate of Glenbrook South High School and the University of Missouri, she loves cheering on the Cubs and Blackhawks and also fears she watches too much Netflix.







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