Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.
At the same time that increasing numbers of women have and are reaching major levels of success in business, in government, as professionals…more attention is being given to answering the question of how do we achieve higher levels of female participation in discussions, in decision making, and in leadership since Be Good was learned by so many girls so long ago that being good, being nice became a lifelong habit, a part of women’s identity as Good Girls or Women.
Some answers are obvious:
• increase the number of women or aggregate them so no one feels everyone is always watching and judging them;
• take women’s career tracks seriously
• provide relevant challenges and training to increase knowledge, skills and confidence
• encourage mentoring
• …and so on.
But I found a different route to be especially successful in getting verbal participation and listening behaviors by women as well as men.
I spent 25 years at The University of Michigan, beginning as a graduate student. Decisions at Michigan were usually made by committees of faculty and most professors served on several. The Student and Feminist Movements were very strong on campus during the 1960s and 70s which led to widening the pool of committee members to include students and university staff.
While all the Deans were involved in making decisions for the entire college, we also had our own specific responsibilities. My office made sure that every student met the requirements for graduation so there were about 50 people in the office. It didn’t take long for me to learn there was a lot of dissatisfaction and unrest among my employees. Morale was low, griping was high, and I wondered what I had gotten myself into. After a week of interviewing a range of people in the office I thought, I got it. My people feel no one listens to them and they are right. The associate and assistant deans have always run this office and they never gave the employees any opportunity to be heard and change things.
That seemed an easy problem to fix. I announced we would be forming an Executive Committee for our office and invited people to volunteer. Senior people in the office and I chose 9 people from among the volunteers to be the Office’s Executive Committee and we made sure there was a wide range of specialties, experiences, and demographics.
At the first meeting it was clear we had created The Tower of Babel. And then it got worse and then, much worse. There were a couple of hogs who no one could shut up and an equal number of complaining whiners who never volunteered an idea or an opinion. People who had been belligerently vocal before they were on the committee chose wounded silence as their preferred style. Politically oriented people started creating alliances to gather more power to silence others. The only things missing were civility, cooperation, commitment to a greater good, and respect for anyone but the boss who was me and I was too green to take that seriously.
I had served on many committees in the College and, without exception, they were serious decision making bodies made up of faculty who, in that sense, were all peers. The committee responsibilities were important – like values, quality, tenure, and hiring and firing. The mood at meetings was friendly but serious. No prima donnas, no weepers or whiners, no elbowing for power…civilized, decisive and cordial. I had taken that for granted. The mistake was mine. Woe was me.
It took no time to realize my volunteers had never served as decision makers. It was necessary now to teach them to discuss, debate, decide…and act.
We had several months of formal training about why this committee could and should be important and why some behaviors were unacceptable because they provoked bad feelings which destroyed any progress to accomplishing our mission. We had hours learning how to ask questions, listen and hear.
As the chief provocateur I took the initiative. I’d say something like, Bruce what do you think we need to do about the long lines of students that form every day? Bruce might say, it is a real problem because first they get in the way and second they generally get mad at us. All of that is true, I might say, But you haven’t commented on what we could do to improve things. Clarissa, you look like you have something to say. True? Well, Clarissa might begin; I think we should rearrange some of the chairs and create a waiting room. That’s an interesting idea Clarissa, do you agree Steve?
Over and over people would be called on to state an opinion, offer a suggestion…or agree or disagree. No one could hold the stage too long or hide in silence and weak body language. After a few weeks, others took up my role and became the leader, monitor, provocateur or guide.
Within a few months everyone’s behavior had become appropriate to the situation and the task because each committee member felt themselves to be a peer to everyone else. Every committee member could initiate an idea and the idea would be discussed and evaluated by everyone at the table.
My proudest moment was when I felt free to step down from the committee, secure in the knowledge they would select an appropriate leader and the group would persist in insisting everyone have an opinion and state it, would not permit injurious behaviors, and would make studied and balanced decisions.