What additional skills or knowledge would you like to gain?
By Kristie McLean
Each Conversation explored a third question, “What additional skills or knowledge would you like to gain?” This question rests on the premise that all of the women who participated in the Women’s Leadership Project are bright, motivated and eager to learn. The purpose of this question was to elicit ideas from the women about the skills they wish to build on and improve, in order to initiate, participate in or increase their influence in the projects and issues where they focus their energies. Indeed, they all possess skills and wish to build upon their existing strengths and knowledge. It’s with this framework in mind that we begin to explore the responses of the women in these nine Conversations.
As we learned from responses to Question Two, it’s important for women first to recognize and value their inherent, natural talents. If women believe they have nothing to offer and that they must learn everything in order to succeed, it can feel daunting to start. The gap between “here” and “there” can feel too far. If, however, women understand and appreciate their abilities, character, and instinctive drives, they will have more confidence to continue to grow and develop. There is less fear and risk in reaching out, knowing they have already begun. Initial skills plus new ones dovetail into a fuller, broader palette with which to bring about lasting, positive change for the women’s families, communities, and livelihoods.
After the participants took the time to name the topics and projects they most cared about and in which they wanted to participate or initiate, and named the skills they are already using, they were able to identify additional skills they wanted to learn or improve. Interestingly, while many women in the Conversations already possess typically “feminine” skills such as listening, patience, mentoring, and setting aside time for self-care, these same skills show up at the top of the lists for desired attributes in the future.
For millennia, women have foraged and cooked together and helped one another through childbirth and daily labors. Women understand the value of relationship, and frequently collaborate in order to serve the common good. This pattern of collective effort showed up in all of the Conversations through the women’s attention to their own needs and as well as those of their families and communities.
Like most women, participants in the Conversations understand the value of tapping into their own wisdom as well as seeking to grow and develop new aptitudes and talents. Rather than setting these skills in the background and focusing purely on more “masculine” leadership skills to succeed, the women seem to feel that honing and leveraging existing strengths, and perhaps utilizing them in new ways, is the best way to propel themselves and their communities forward. For example Romajean, from the Muckleshoot Nation in the USA says, “We have come to the realization that we do work daily that is investing in our community, and with the support of each other we can further our network, resources and skills to broaden the scope of work possible.”
Clear themes emerge from the women’s Conversations around which leadership skills they would like to develop further. These themes include care and support of self, building and strengthening relationships, improving communication, developing practical management skills, and modernizing communities. We will explore all of these themes, and the similarities and differences in the responses, in this section.
Care and support of self is a prevalent topic across all of the nine Conversations. By self care and support, the women refer to being able to accept their successes and failures, grow in self-confidence, fail with grace, set boundaries, take care of themselves, balance work and family, look inside instead of outside for answers, manage their own emotions, love those who love them, listen, dare to think and do new things, overcome fear of the unknown, learn self-reliance and trust their own choices.
In the Conversation at Antioch University in the USA, Roz’s group discussed the importance of feeling their emotions and having the confidence to speak and share their passions. Women in that group want to learn skills around staying motivated, healing, finding support, and dealing with hopelessness through reframing their thinking. They also seek to admit their limitations and honor their own capacities, which are naturally fluid and changing depending on life’s circumstances.
Women from the group in Burkina Faso similarly recognize that only by “developing personal stamina” can they continue to strive toward their vision. In each of the Conversations women emphasized that in order to continue to support their families and communities they must remain strong themselves. Nurturing their own minds, bodies, and spirits need not come at the expense of those they love. Rather, by recognizing their own needs and finding creative ways to answer their own concerns, women can achieve greater balance between nurturing themselves and others.
Illustrating this point is Winnie from Uganda whose dream is to start a day care center where career women can leave their babies and go to work. “If a working mother can leave her baby in the hands of someone she trusts, she will be more productive at her job, her performance level will soar, and she will rise in the ranks,” Winnie says. Winnie understands that women are required to balance many responsibilities at once but that creative solutions are possible and can bring about increased peace of mind, ease, and efficiency!
Building and strengthening relationships is another skill women in the Conversations wish to develop further. Relationship skills include mentoring, taking care of family, networking, helping others, empowering children and youth, supporting co-workers and making friends. The stories of these women indicate that when their relationships are strong, they have an expanded capacity to give and to grow. One of the women in Weub’s Conversation in Ethiopia remarks, “I lead my family, but I want to know what it takes to lead a work team.”
One illustration of building and strengthening relationships that is unique among the conversations comes from Tam’s group in Vietnam. In that country over 13 million women (roughly 90% of females) belong to the Vietnam Women’s Union, founded in 1930. The VWU is mandated to “protect women’s legitimate rights and strive for gender equality.” This campaign includes making sure that women know how to “build happy and harmonious families, have loyalty to one’s country and community, friendship, love, and colleagues.” Women seek to preserve the dignity, status, and honor of social ethics. Right relationships are not only something to strive for in Vietnam; they are mandated as part of the VWU charter.
Another pattern that emerged around desired skill development is improving communication, both verbal and written. This skill is broken into many aspects, including speaking English and other languages, public speaking, giving presentations, learning computer skills and improving digital fluency, documenting successes, overcoming shyness, and speaking up with their own ideas.
Women in Lidieth’s conversation in Nicaragua commented that with an increased ability to influence and inspire others it would be possible for women to break the pattern of “silence and shyness” and to express themselves positively without fear. Additionally, the development of networking and social relations would allow greater openness in building connections with others. Mabilia in Guatemala agrees, and says that improved public speaking and the ability to articulate will exponentially expand the power of conveying ideas with strategy and intention. Learning not just the content of presentations is important, the Guatemalan women realize, but also the skills of dealing with and comforting people with sensitive issues and at difficult times.
Julie, a peace and justice worker for refugees in Uganda, talks about the benefit of learning how to control emotions. “As a leader you must be resilient, bounce back and carry on because you are dealing with people who have lost themselves and look up to you as the source of direction. As a leader you must be in control so that you are able to handle the different emotions – your interpersonal skills can make you or break you under such traumatic circumstances.”
Improving comfort with and access to technology also plays a role in relationship building. Romajean’s conversation at the Muckleshoot Nation in the USA seeks a social media class for their women’s leadership group and the creation of a Facebook page so that the women can connect with each other. They realize that connections are built not just face-to-face, but also through technological devices like cell phones and the Internet.
Women in the Conversations also spoke frequently about developing practical management skills. This includes project management, organization, decision-making, documenting records, group facilitation, leadership and event planning. Irene in Uganda believes she is successful due to her communication skills, yet wants more practical skills in organizational development and management so she does not limit her ability to meet the needs of others. “Many women have studied these issues in school but they cannot easily apply them practically,” she said. Irene also appreciates the step-by-step, incremental approach of change rather than focusing on achieving “very big strides.” Learning to manage these steps will ultimately yield positive change. “With this in mind, I know the women I work with can make small but positive achievements in their lives,” she says.
Like Irene, most of the women want to improve their practical management skills so they can broaden and deepen their impact across communities and with more people. In Mabilia’s group in Guatemala for example, the women want to improve their practical management skills so they can maximize their own abilities and grow as leaders. For them that includes learning how to cope and thrive at different levels socially, economically and in the public sector. Rocío’s conversation, also in Guatemala, said that when women guide groups they raise productivity for everyone. They noticed that the skills women use are “more detailed and teaching by example,” and that “we are capable of doing multiple things at once.” They shared an example of mobilizing and organizing resources after the 2010 tropical storm Agatha, which left a 200-foot deep sinkhole in Guatemala City and killed 146 people across Central America. Rocío’s group organized themselves and took materials and items to the people who had been most affected.
Modernizing communities is a final key topic that emerged across the Conversations. This very practical skill set includes improving roads, improving access to clean water, learning about childhood development, schools, better health care (especially with maternal health and disease prevention,) micro-finance, and other opportunities that promote financial independence.
Rocío’s group in Guatemala stressed the importance of infrastructure. They want to learn how to modernize their village with access to water and roads, how to develop healthy children, and ways to contribute to better health. Similarly, Susan from Uganda would like to work in the public health sector, such as maternal health or malaria prevention, and she seeks skills in those areas. Not surprisingly, improved skills in one area can cause positive change in another. Stella, also from Uganda, says that she needs to “build skills in communication, especially public speaking,” and that they will help her “be able to mobilize more people” to join and participate together. Being assertive, networking, and being able to link up with positive role models (people who have made it to the top) will help her learn how to be more like them.
For many women in the Conversations, moving into modernity means making sure that basic human services like health-care and access to right livelihoods are available to all. They wish to develop the skills to support this process, including speaking up with creative solutions, knowing they are a critical part of being a leader in their communities and a global citizen.
Unlike some Conversations that emphasized harmony within existing and accepted frameworks, women from Burkina Faso called out the need for working within cultural norms and pushing boundaries. This desire to expand a cultural paradigm is an interesting difference from a country like Vietnam that places enormous value on maintaining the social and political fabric. Hanh, from the Vietnam conversation, explains it this way: “Educating a Vietnamese woman in self-esteem is realizing her responsibilities to respect, preserve the dignity, status, and honor, not to have violated the law, social ethics… using the legal framework in all her actions, striving for self-improvement, positive living, self-confidence.” Just as women around the world are unique, so too are their attitudes around the “right way” of living.
The women who participated in the nine international Conversations are committed to noticing and valuing their talents and building upon them for even greater capacity and resilience. From caring and supporting themselves, building and strengthening current and future relationships, improving communication with clarity, courage, inclusion, and ease with technology; developing practical management skills, and by modernizing their communities through fundamental access to clean water, education, health, and financial opportunity, the women of this global network are taking a stand.
A tree with deep roots provides grounding and draws nourishment from the soil. Simultaneously it reaches upward toward the light, the soothing rains, the open sky. Like that tree, the women in these Conversations recognize and celebrate their inherent worth. They also realize that the only way to move forward is to keep deepening their roots, keep unfurling their leaves in fresh directions, and continuing to bloom and to grow wherever they may be.