Learning that Asserting Oneself is a Good Thing
Many cultural and social service nonprofit organizations on Staten Island are run by women. In addition to Staten Island Museum, the Alice Austen House, Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art, Sandy Ground Historical Museum, Staten Island Arts, Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanic Garden, Staten Island Children’s Museum, Sundog Theatre, IlluminArt, St. George Theater, along with the Pride Center of Staten Island, Community Health Action, Eden II, Staten Island Chamber of Commerce, and more, are run by amazing women professional leaders. I am therefore in good company at the top.
In September 2017, I began as President and CEO of Staten Island Museum, the borough’s museum with collections, exhibitions, and programs in art, natural science, and history; a premiere cultural institution on Staten Island since 1881; and one of thirty-three major institutions across the city that has a special and longstanding relationship with New York City. I moved into this role after four and a half years as Executive Director of the Alice Austen House, a historic house museum on Staten Island devoted to a fascinating early American photographer and woman ahead of her time.
My title is now President and CEO. I will admit when I first began introducing myself in this role, I felt somewhat awkward and uncomfortable with this title. In museums, the title of Executive Director is much more common, so in some way I felt like my title seemed overblown. I’m not someone who typically draws attention to myself, so at first I rather timidly stated my title, or even said “I’m the director of the Staten Island Museum” instead—downplaying the title, because that felt more comfortable.
But then I thought about it. Why wouldn’t I say President and CEO proudly? There is no reason that I shouldn’t. Except for the nagging notion that women shouldn’t brag, or maybe that at some level I’m internalizing that there aren’t too many women President and CEOs and that it seems like that title doesn’t belong to me. But the reality is I’ve earned it. I’ve worked hard to get where I am: years of schooling and working my way up through various positions of responsibility at institutions. The title is valid; I run a business, be it a not-for-profit one. But is there some part of me that thinks I don’t deserve it? I checked myself.
Now I own it. Now I say President and CEO with confidence, pride and determination.
The other aspect of being a woman nonprofit leader I want to address here is the difficulty as a woman leader to be firm about stating my interests in a given situation and standing my ground.
I have especially worked on being disciplined about not apologizing unless it’s really necessary. When I may assert myself in meetings or in dealings with staff or colleagues, sometimes I second-guess myself and worry that I was too harsh, especially when the majority of my staff are women and I want to treat everyone respectfully. Now, certainly there are times when reflecting on my words is appropriate and perhaps I have in fact offended; however, there is also a regular tendency to be concerned about how I’m coming across that I do think is related to the double-standards of women in the workplace. In the past, or in my personal relations, I may have been inclined to say, “Sorry if I was harsh” or somehow explain myself, and I still find myself doing that from time to time. But when I notice myself thinking or feeling this way, before I respond, I ask myself: “As a boss and leader, do I need to explain my stance or was I simply looking out for my needs or setting direction that my role requires? Would a male leader feel the need to apologize or explain himself in this situation? Do I actually need to address how my tone was perceived and came across, or am I overly concerning myself about it?”
Asserting authority is necessary when one is the boss, and I need to allow myself to realize it is entirely okay to be strong and assertive in a conversation as a confident leader. In fact, it’s my job to make decisions and provide clear direction. While I recognize that some of these tendencies are due to my own life history or personality, I do think that some of what I experience in the way of hesitancy with being firm has been influenced by societal norms or expectations of women’s behavior. As a result, I end up making the extra effort all the time to try to overcome the tendency to be a peacemaker or avoid conflict and assess whether or not my behavior actually needs to be explained, and I try to catch myself before I say anything. I do a quick analysis in my head, or sometimes I re-read emails and delete sentences that are explaining something that doesn’t need to be explained, or perhaps I delete an email entirely because really I don’t need to send it.
This is just one aspect of the many things that I think makes being a woman executive harder. I am constantly evaluating how my gender influences my leadership decisions, as well as how my words or behavior are being received by others in similar positions. Whether I like it or not, I cannot help but sometimes wonder if I’m being taken as seriously as a male leader when I state my case, negotiate contract terms, or conduct any other transaction in which I am communicating and protecting the interests and needs of my organization. For the most part these days, thankfully, I don’t think that I am being dismissed or taken less seriously on the basis of gender; however there are times when I do think that plays into it. Or minimally, I wonder if it does.
So, how do I deal with it? Act like the President and CEO that I am. Be brave and state my case and handle myself how I determine best, and try not to be too concerned with how I am received. And if I notice that I might be inclined to be deferential, don’t let it show and hold my ground.
Norms will only shift if we as women stand our ground as leaders, expect the same standards, respect ourselves, treat ourselves as equals, and recognize and assert our own authority.
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