I recently had a conversation with Wende Jager-Hyman, the Executive Director for Woodhull Institute for Ethical Leadership, a not-for-profit educational organization that provides ethical leadership training and professional development to women. The organization is named for Victoria Woodhull, a nineteenth-century feminist and first woman stockbroker on Wall Street. She was also the first woman to produce her own newspaper and run for president before women had the right to vote.
Q: What has been your experience at Woodhull?
A: I’ve been able to work with so many remarkable women. I’m a child of the seventies. I worried about this new generation [of women]. I thought that they didn’t have the passion we [women of the 1970s] had. Young women seemed too materialistic or jaded. But the more I’ve been here and met these young women, I’ve realized that’s not the case. I’ve met so many incredible young women, who have a different kind of passion…in the long run, they’re far more productive. They take charge of issues and really make change. It’s been incredibly inspiring…
At the end of the retreats, we have everyone hold hands and ask them to use one word to describe what the weekend was like for them. About 99% of the time the word “hope” comes to mind…They come from every background, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background…They’ve shown me that they can take charge, they can lead—and make a difference.
Q: Why do women come to the retreats? What do they explore?
A: Women come to the retreats for many different reasons. We’ve all talked about the glass ceiling. It’s not what it was…It’s not that there’s an artificial quota to move up. Rather there are certain things we’ve been acculturated to that get in our way.
When most women come to us, they’re in transition. They know that they want to do something, but they’re not sure how to get there. We take a very holistic approach. Very often when you go to seminars, it’s either completely skills oriented and very academic or they’re [the seminars] extremely emotional. We’ve found that human beings are not one or the other…You have to deal with a lot of the acculturation and other issues.
[At our retreats and classes], we deal with financial management. You need to know how to budget…You have to feel secure where you are, especially if you’re going to take a leadership role...
We teach public speaking. You need to be able to walk into a boardroom and state your case. It’s not just about your posture and opening up your ribcage (although we teach that, too), it’s also about owning your accomplishments…Often, in a boardroom, men will talk about their accomplishments in the room…But women do not…It’s important to be able to stand your ground.
Q: Does the media play a role in all this?
A: The media plays off of what sells. It’s easy to say it’s the media’s fault. It’s also about how we’ve been raised…Also, what messages does your mom send you growing up?...You’ll often hear the word “mediagenic.” People will say, “Is she mediagenic?”…Will she look good on TV?...If you look around at who is informing the debate, it’s mostly men.
The glass ceiling is different. Producers and editors ask for women experts all the time. Oftentimes women do not step up to the plate. They do not want to voice a strong opinion or they don’t feel confident doing so…From nuclear proliferation to childcare, there are plenty of experts. But where are the women?...You can talk to expert after expert…Public opinion is mostly being shaped by men (white men specifically). Most of the pundits and people who shape the news are men. The majority of people we’re listening to are white men. But the conversation needs to be broader. We feel strongly at Woodhull, it’s not only okay to have your opinion, but it’s important to get it out there—from the boardroom to television to your local PTA…It’s great to celebrate the successes, but of the 500 Fortune companies, there are only about ten female CEOs—and we’re 50 percent of the population!
Q: Describe ethical leadership.
A: Ethical leadership is the compassionate use of power. Women in power can be an interesting conversation...Women shy away from power and money…We’re trying to teach that power and money are not evil; it’s what you do with it…You can do so with compassion and an eye for social justice...
Leadership is important. It’s also about recognizing that none of us got to where we are by ourselves…Women in my generation [did not always do this]…I’m not sure if it holds true of younger generations. There was the sense that there were just so many jobs, so many books to be written, and just so many inventions…We try to teach a psychology of abundance instead. If a woman helps another woman, it doesn’t mean she’s putting herself at risk…
Things are changing. As more women reach leadership roles, this will continue. Erica Jong is one of our board members [the author of Fear of Flying]. [When writing her book] she went to female authors and they were not forthcoming at the time,…she found her greatest support from men…It’s changing…but it’s something we still need to work on…
Q: How do you get the word out about Woodhull?
A: We’re a 501(c)(3). We put our work into programming as opposed to marketing…Retreats have an application process and you need to be recommended…We ask that somewhere along the line they’ve [applicants] shown leadership potential…She can be anyone from a stay-at-home mom who is active in her community to someone who wants to run for president…Often people recommend others after they’ve come to the retreats.
Q: Can you tell me about some success stories?
A: One woman was a finance major, graduated from college, and worked at a large brokerage house in NY. Although she was extremely accomplished with an MBA, she was miserable [at her job]. She came to a retreat and talked about how she wanted to help women [with their finances]…She became a certified financial planner, founded her own company, and today she gives seminars to women on how to deal with finances.
Another is a first generation immigrant who works in the Civil service. She was a single mom and not comfortable with what was happening in her organization. Her culture taught her to be demure, take a backseat…After the retreat, she wound up becoming a union rep. She negotiated a great new contract…She’s now going to raise her daughter to believe that she can fulfill her dreams…
We teach how to write Op-Eds…We had a chemist come to the retreat. It was the weekend when Lawrence Summers [former President of Harvard University] made the comment about women in science. She was very upset about it. Everyone said, “You’ve got to write an Op-Ed about it.” She did not think she could. “But you’re a scientist!” we said…Eventually the article was published in a paper in New Jersey and was picked up by two other papers…Only about 20% of Op-Eds are written by women…Of all the newspapers, women are not submitting. Women don’t think they’re experts or are not willing to put themselves out there…If you talk to any Op-Ed editor, they’re always looking for women and especially women of color…Your opinion, when done well, can have a great impact on policy and people…Women don’t seek it out and they don’t see themselves as having a voice. But they do!