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An interview with Jill Hufnagel, Ph.D., LPC. Jill Hufnagel is the Associate Director of the Batten Leadership Institute at Hollins University and a consultant with Cambridge Leadership Associates.  A licensed professional counselor, Jill is also a former professor of Women’s Studies and English and a dear friend. 

Women live and work in co-ed environments.  Why consider all-women’s offerings?

Whether we like it or not, gender is a live issue: in schools and boardrooms, in think tanks and government. Yes, women live and work in co-ed spaces. Yet, they have had very little hand in creating these environments, shaping their cultures, hammering out the spoken and unspoken rules.  So, women also need single-sex moments purposely structured to help us understand the impact of gender on us both individually and systemically.

As Bad Feminist’s Roxane Gaye puts it, “We make up half the workforce but pay a pretty steep price for that privilege.”  Last year, women earned roughly 77% of what their male counterparts earned. With women holding less than 5% of S&P 500 CEO posts and just over 19% of seats in the U.S. Congress, there are astonishingly few women in places of power for other women to see and experience a variety of approaches to leadership.  That reality works on and against women.  Studies consistently show that women have a markedly tougher time navigating workplace politics, ascending the ladder, and being perceived as effective. Opportunities for women to gain insight and training in a single sex environment are few and far between. When women can be in the same place together, it allows more of that modeling and cross-pollination to emerge.

Leadership has become a hot topic, but the language of leadership seems almost generic.  What kind of leadership development actually makes progress on the complex issues you’ve raised?

Adaptive leadership.  Here’s why: it’s a methodology focused on making sense of and navigating the dynamics at play in the very systems in which we live and work.   And it’s within these systems that gender biases proliferate.  In the study at the heart of Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey’s What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know,96% of women interviewed reported experiencing one of four patterns of systemic gender bias.  96%!

Helping people see and in turn affect these systems is vital to change. At the crux of the adaptive framework is a core question: What part of your organizational DNA is essential? And from there, where is there room to discard what no longer works? Where can you innovate to disrupt the very fabric of institutional gender biases? The adaptive model pinpoints those vital changes that allow both individuals and organizations to thrive and survive.

The adaptive framework is built on an empowering belief: All of us–up, down, and across the organizational chart–can learn to do the work of leadership.  The ideas, then, are the best of what we know in terms of actually teaching people to be more effective in every room they will ever enter.  Harvard Business Review cites three core elements for optimal leadership development programs: “space for learning, experimentation, and community.” By design, adaptive programs deliver all three through these tactics:

  • Untangling the role of authority from the act of leadership
  • Surfacing our knee-jerk deference to authority, causing us to lose sight of our own agency
  • Understanding the pressures and blinders that emerge when we face ambiguous challenges
  • Encouraging innovation and strategy through experimentation
  • Leveraging community to sustain ongoing leadership practice and development

Given the many challenges we’re facing nationally and globally, why create all-women’s programs now?

We know that a society does only as well as its women. If ever there were a time we needed more people engaging in leadership more often in service to our greatest shared challenges—healthcare, poverty alleviation, education, immigration, terrorism, homelessness, climate change—it is now.  No longer do we have the freedom to exclude anyone from the conversation.  While it’s easy to get swept up in a mindset of scarcity, adaptive leadership underscores abundance and in turn the need to catalyze more voices, more perspectives, more possibilities.  Women need that same “more”: more opportunities to wrestle with the ways in which gender plays on them, their self-imposed expectations, and the larger social pressures they at once shoulder, shirk, and reinforce.

What do you hope women will learn in these kinds of programs?

Initiatives designed to help make progress on gender equity–sensitivity programs, mentoring, various women’s interest groups–are largely well-intentioned. Yet, data shows they are insufficient at making progress on closing the gender gap. Adaptive leadership is all about narrowing gaps between what we want and the realities of where we are, between what we say and what we do.

Shifting from reactive to responsive—despite pressures to “do something”—is tough. Yet, a responsive strategy is vital if we are to engage in thoughtful, strategic acts of leadership.  Many of our own practiced behaviors and roles keep us stuck.  Especially when under pressure, we often react with “default behaviors” tried and true ways.  We encourage participants to push beyond those well-worn paths, allowing them to find and exercise a little more breathing room before leaping to action. Our aim is for participants to leave well-armed to exert systemic pressure, to design new experiments trained on disrupting the gender biases suffocating the staggering majority of our organizations and institutions.

Participants have allies in this work, and we want them to forge relationships with those allies.  Our deepest hope is that participants become invaluable resources to one another as they strive to make progress in their home organizations.  Bringing together a group of women trained on deepening their own leadership capacity is akin to lighting small, mighty fires. The more of us who embody leadership, the more avenues we open up for women in our wake.