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Is there still a glass ceiling? and other questions for women in leadership

Lansie Sylvia, Yael Lehmann and Valerie Gay. March 14, 2016 Category: EventFeaturedLongPurpose
Happy Women’s History Month!

Despite all the work in women’s rights that’s happened in the past few decades, there’s still a whole bunch of gender disparity in the professional world. (Also, Tumblrs like this exist.)

But there’s also a lot of work being done to help women support each other.

Last week, Here’s My Chance hosted a women in leadership panel moderated by Lansie Sylvia at the Free Library of Philadelphia, covering topics ranging from the continued existence of the “glass ceiling” to the importance of mentorship to navigating perceptions of bossiness. The four panelists were:

  • Valerie Gay, executive director of Art Sanctuary
  • Melissa Greenberg, VP of development for the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation
  • Yael Lehmann, executive director of The Food Trust
  • Tiffany Tavarez, corporate contributions manager at PECO

Is there a glass ceiling?

Tavarez: “I actually feel more trapped from the sides than the top. Unless on your current ground level there’s something, someone, some opportunity to help you get to the next level, it doesn’t matter whether or not there’s a ceiling. You can’t even reach out to the side because there’s something blocking you there. How can I build up my armor to find solutions to the tougher problems?”

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Gay: “Yes and no. We see it, we can just look at statistics about whatever field you’re in. But we also see people who break through it, so for me, I think, it’s more about, ‘How do you find that hole and exploit that hole and open it enough so other people can come through?’ I think it’s our responsibility to make sure we haven’t created a ceiling wherever we are.”

Greenberg: “I have had incredible mentors throughout my career. Because I had these incredible women around me, I was emulating them. I think that is a big piece of this. I’m not going to say there’s a glass ceiling, I’m not going to say we can’t get there, but we do need to keep our eye on the prize. This is decades and centuries of culture that we are really transforming right now.”

Lehmann: “The glass ceiling is real. All you need to do is look at the statistics. I was thinking about my mom, who was a CPA and she’s experienced a ton of sexism. So she said, ‘Forget it, I’m going to start my own business. I’m going to build my own ceiling in my own house.’ Watching her in action was a beautiful thing. Is it better than it was for my mom? Yes.”

How did the role of mentorship serve you in your career and personal development, and how did you go about establishing those relationships?

Women in Leadership crowd

(Photo by Julie Zeglen)

Greenberg: “I didn’t have an official mentor, but there were people who I really admired, and I would find a way to be around them. And they weren’t all women. They helped me see my place in the world. They said, ‘Put yourself at the table.’”

Gay: “Some of those people have been above me, some of those people have been side-by-side with me. Some of those people were supposedly behind me. But a circle of people is great. I have gone up to people and said, ‘Hey, you’re going to be my mentor.’ But for the most part, with the exception of Alan Greenspan, literally, people said yes.”

Lehmann: “Peer-to-peer [mentorship] was very important. When I first came into the role of executive director, I had so much to learn. I needed to reach out to a lot of people and say, ‘I need help.” I found lots of people were willing to help me in different ways.”

How can women best navigate perceptions around assertiveness, especially when women are judged more harshly than men for being bossy or arrogant?

Tavarez: “If you are a women of color, extra for you. I’m never going to not have audacity, because ambition without audacity is an atrocity. You may as well not exist. I come from a very survival-of-the-fittest background, and now I live in a world where I get to pay it forward, and that did not happen by me not speaking up.”

Greenberg: “I’m actually very bossy, and I know that I am. My new mantra is, ‘I’m not being mean, I’m just being direct.’ But you have to be.”

Lehmann: “I had to learn in the beginning what my brand of assertiveness was. You can still be assertive and be you. I’m the cheerleader leadership style.”

Gay: “Just because you’re nice doesn’t mean you’re weak. And just because you’re smiling doesn’t mean you’re weak — or, if you’re assertive, that you’re not capable of compassion. What we’re doing is stripping away our capacity to be human and that we are multifaceted.”

Looking back five or 10 years, what career advice would you give your younger self?

Laughing leaders.

(Photo by Julie Zeglen)

Lehmann: “It was very important to be me. I was trying to copy and mimic other people who are really good at being leaders, but if you’re not genuinely you, it’s just not going to work.”

Greenberg: “I would really like to have not stayed in a bad situation for as long as I did. I would have gotten out. And then knowing it was going to be OK. I was just so completely paralyzed by fear and not knowing there was another side — and there’s always another side.”

Tavarez: “I wouldn’t tell her a damn thing. Your character is what builds your brand, personally and professionally, and I think character is made from the marks that you make and the scars that you heal from.”

Gay: “My main regrets in my life really have nothing to do with what has happened to me and more what I have done that was of my own volition to others. If anything, I would go back to specific situations and tell myself, ‘This feels uncomfortable, and it’s OK to be uncomfortable, if you speak your truth and you’re yourself.’ I can’t control whatever happens externally to me. The only thing that I can control is my response to it.”

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