This essay is the first in our Push For Parity essay series, featuring stories about women in leadership in journalism. For more on our series and details about how you can contribute, see Kelly McBride’s essay introducing the project.
Maya Penn owned the stage when she presented her entrepreneurial businesses last year during her TED Talk. She created animated cartoons with computer viruses and superhero plant pollinator as lead characters and she manufactured eco-friendly clothes and accessories. In addition to showing technological and development skills, CEO Penn also displayed real spirit as she strolled on stage sporting a liberated afro.
When Maya made that talk last December, she was 13 years old.
Yes, we can achieve in amazing ways. Women impress as leaders in a range of interests and disciplines, including journalism, in ways I never would have imagined when I was 13. After progress over the years, I also wouldn’t have imagined how problems of bias would linger and that at this point we would face losing ground.
My age of enlightenment in the 1960s and 70s brought monumental shifts in civil rights, especially for African Americans and women. Few factors affected my move to and tenure in leadership more than matters of race and gender.
The twin factors were at work when I finished high school and went to college with a scholarship from a group of powerful black women in Nashville’s Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. The twins were there when I got job offers I didn’t take and was turned down for jobs I should have gotten, when I worked at newspapers, taught in a historically black college, then in a large, predominantly white state university and when I met the challenges of teaching all-knowing journalists and media leaders at the Poynter Institute and rose to president.
Race and gender intertwine in five lessons I learned about leadership and flavor my expectations for the next generation of female leaders.
1. We have champions.
Women and people of color can particularly find leadership bleak and lonely, yet we have to remember there are champions along the way, sometimes in unexpected places. I remember entering a departmental terror’s office with the goal of taking care of business and leaving quickly. I happened to comment on a jazz poster on his wall and the man immediately became my new best friend. He shielded me from problems and encouraged me from then on.
Andrew Barnes was one of my champions. An alum of The Washington Post, Harvard-educated and possessing a vocabulary that regularly sent others to a dictionary, Barnes was the CEO of (St. Petersburg) Times Publishing and chairman of the Poynter Board in 2002. He led in selecting a new president. He sought guidance from a series of interviews with journalism and news business leaders, including potential candidates. Butch Ward, former managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, conducted interviews. I was Poynter dean, second only to the President. After an extended conversation Butch asked, “Well, do you want to be president?” I did but I guess I waited to be anointed or to let things just play out. Thanks for asking, Butch. I spoke up. Ward completed his report. Barnes, with the approval of the board, appointed me president. It was a big step to place a black woman in charge of a prestigious institute, but he was willing to take a chance on me.
2. There are more with us.
As I took the position of president, I wondered if an older generation of white male leaders would relate to me. I found that as Poynter changed, other organizations were changing. I found more women and people of color in leadership, new thinking and folks who resisted biased.
That’s important because they can be cultivated as advocates.
3. Leading is still very hard work.
Let’s not forget, leadership is difficult. Even with outstanding colleagues like those I had at Poynter, leading is hard. Guiding people, upholding values, making wise decisions, responding when things go wrong, seeking solutions, all that is hard. In her book on leadership, Jill Geisler wrote that leaders disappoint people daily. Even when the leader’s intentions, skills and instincts are the best, someone will be let down. The big challenge for many over the last decade has been super rapid transformation fueled by disruptive technology. Creating and sustaining start-ups is hard. Managing transformation in long-established organizations is taxing. Making needed cutbacks and job shifts can be dispiriting. It’s nice to claim the job title; it’s better to enjoy the rewards of making a difference, still leadership is hard.
Add to that the challenges that people of color and women face as leaders. One of the “on top of everything else” burdens for me is simply walking into a reception or meeting to a group that is overwhelmingly white and male. Many of us try not to make a beeline to the only other two women or people of color in the room. I quickly learned to put on a big smile, stick out my hand and act like a politician as I approached someone whose body language says, “I don’t know you and don’t know what to say to you.” Women and people of color as fellow leaders are still a new experience for some. Economic trends might suggest that many of us will remain “the other” to those whose wealth allows them to isolate themselves. The question is will we as leaders seek to remove those walls for ourselves and others?
4. Our life lessons matter.
So we weren’t in that Ivy League fraternity and we didn’t have that rugby experience. I came to realize the importance of drawing on my life experiences instead of moaning about what I didn’t have. Years ago while leading a very lively and intellectually gifted faculty, I realized I was using lessons learned from raising two teenage boys as a single mother. I reached a point of telling my sons: I don’t care how tall you grow (or how long you talk), I’m still here, still in charge. I learned that once you resolve that internally, you don’t have to say much. I also learned to work through fear when times were tough, to be upbeat and optimistic. Our life lessons serve us well.
5. Resist inequality.
I grew up watching the large and small sacrifices made for Civil Rights. Then the Black Power movement advocated change by any means necessary. Years later, I had a quiet talk with noted newspaper editor John Seigenthaler outside Poynter’s amphitheater after a session on diversity. I asked, what will make a difference in a biased society. Seigenthaler said sometimes you have to sue, take cases of bias to court.
The key for women, people of color and others who experience or see inequality is to resist by small or large sacrifices and by any appropriate means necessary. Sometimes that means a quiet face to face talk to change conduct. That was often my approach. It helps to have mission and integrity on your side. Another step is modeling what’s needed by selecting and urging the selection of a range of voices in hiring and appointments. Maintaining a mix can be arduous and can require delaying selections, but it is worth it. Sometimes resisting means the loss of favor or a position; sometimes legal action is needed. I admire those over the years who stood up to make a difference. I often challenge myself: Am I resisting inequality. We need to constantly resist.
Maya Penn is not a journalist, but I referred to her because she helps give me confidence about the future. That confidence is matched by concerns. I see the bright future in, not only Maya, but in others including students in Tennessee State University class, most of whom are women. They are bright, energetic, willing to innovate. I believe the move to entrepreneurship and intrepreneurship will help shift the ground on salaries and rewards. A broader field should help vary paths to success and circumvent many gatekeepers.
My concern is in the things that haven’t changed such as overwhelmingly white, male boards and a new territory of exclusion in new tech operations. The tech world has added women at the top but few women, blacks or Latinos throughout. Add to the problem the horrendous state of many public school systems and things could get worse with an unprepared generation. Each one of us has to make a difference in our area of influence.
The 13 year old entrepreneur on the TED stage builds on the best of the last half century. When I was 13 I had no idea how far I would go, and my best years are still ahead. I choose to focus on and believe in the best ahead for us all.
Karen B. Dunlap is President Emerita, The Poynter Institute. Dunlap teaches in the communications department at Tennessee State University. Read more