by Kelsie Poe
A few months ago I went to an on-campus retreat about women’s leadership. I was excited to meet with undergraduate women, talk to them about leadership styles, and what problems they had while leading. Our keynote speaker, Valerie Hennings, really struck a chord with me. Hennings discussed the issues facing women in leadership, citing attribution theory as one reason for a lack of women in leadership positions. Attribution theory looks at where we attribute our successes and failures within our lives, and the evidence shows that men and women are generally opposite in their attributions. It hurts me to see women attributing successes to external factors and failures to internal factors while men generally do the opposite. We were asked to take control of our leadership and take responsibility for what we were achieving.
After we learned about attribution theory in the morning, we had a panel of guest speakers in the afternoon who held prominent roles in the surrounding community. One woman, in describing her life story and successes, said she was so lucky to have been given the opportunities in her past and hoped that all of the young women in the room would have the great fortune of experiencing those moments.
Lucky? Didn’t we just talk about how we shouldn’t be chalking our success up to external forces? I looked around the room for similarly stunned faces, but I found nothing but furious nodding and approving smiles. Did no one else see the contradiction here? We had all been pushed just a few hours previously to take personal responsibility for our outcomes. Did we really forget that easily what was told to us?
Upon further reflection, I don’t think we necessarily forgot what we had been told, but we did not truly begin to accept it. Hennings had asked us to change the virtues that are supposedly at the core of every great woman. As Jennifer Keup talked about in an earlier post on this blog, Polite, soft spoken, gentle, humble, and gracious are qualities women pursue in the quest to be perfect in the eyes of others. While there is nothing inherently wrong in these characteristics, they are often directly competing with the promotion of self.
We could debate the causes or the reasons for these values in our society, but others have already done a pretty good job of that. Women like Sheryl Sandberg are talking about these issues on a large scale and calling attention to the lack of women leaders. It’s more important to focus on our actions and what we can do to eliminate lucky from the success discussion and move to being worthy of that success. Here are some of the tactics that I have begun using:
- I have stopped using lucky when I talk about myself. I realized how often I was saying that I was not in control of my own accomplishments and how that frequency was impairing not only how others saw me, but how I saw myself. Now, instead of saying I’m lucky to be in a great graduate program, I talk about the hard work it took for me to get there. When I do well on a project, I attribute it to my time spent working or the people who offered their time to help me towards my goal.
- I offer up alternatives for students and colleagues who use lucky. This has involved me being much more aware of what others are saying to me and around me. It is easy to ignore the comments, but offering up alternatives to “lucky” gets people thinking about what truly got them their success in the first place. For example, when a fellow SA grad tells me they were “lucky” to get an internship, I tell her that she had a solid resume, applied, followed up, and interviewed before they picked her. It was not random fate, but her efforts that got her that internship.
- I tell people I appreciate them or I’m proud of them, and then I tell them WHY. It is beyond important to give verbal or written recognition to those around us. Supporting someone in their journey, especially if you go out of your way to do so, is one of the best forms of motivation you can give. But when we simply say “Proud of you!” we are missing out on a chance to give that person some ammo. Including specifics in a Thank You note or taking a few extra moments to discuss why you appreciate someone takes out the luck variable. Specific feedback leads to a great sense of understanding, even about oneself.
As current or future professionals, I believe it is important for us to change this tendency toward external attribution into internal. It is important not only so that our young women leaders begin to take ownership of their actions, but also so that all of our leaders are more conscious of their impact on their community and themselves. The list above is by no means exhaustive! There will need to be more than personal changes to make an impact. But hopefully it’s a place to start helping ourselves and our students to move from lucky to worthy. So what will you do today to challenge yourself and others to move towards internal attribution?
Blue, B. A. (2010, July 24). Attribution theory or why women don’t rule the world – Glendale Single Women | Examiner.com. Retrieved April 25, 2014, from http://www. examiner.com/article/attribution-theory-or-why-women-don-t-rule-the-world
Sandberg, S. (2010, December). Sheryl Sandberg: Why we have too few women leaders | Talk Video | TED.com [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/sheryl_sandbe rg_why_we_have_too_few_women_leaders
Wolfe, K. (2013, November 1). The Wife List: 10 Qualities GoodGuySwag. Retrieved April 25, 2014, from http://goodguyswag.com/the-wife-list-10-qualities/
Kelsie Poe is a pursuing her master’s in Student affairs at Iowa State University. Professionally, she works as a College of Business academic advisor, a 2014 Summer ACUHO-I Intern, and a full-time student. Personally, she loves studying minimalism, watching feminist poetry on YouTube, and eating every kind of breakfast food at unconventional times.