By Angela Noel
May 13, 2018
I want Amy Jean Kramer Brenengen in the room when tempers flare. She’s the cheerleader I want on my team when I’m afraid I may lose. She’s the leader I want in my ear when the stakes are high. But she’s also the woman I want to have a huge glass of wine with to either celebrate our victories, or strategize on how best to learn from our defeats.
Though passionate about many things including, family, working, running (kind of), and the arts, a constant and persistent interest tells much about this woman’s story and her contribution to the world.
This interest, this love, recently drove her to issue a public challenge.
Finding the Path
Uncovering the path our adult selves will walk often happens step by step. In the river of life we must cross, ready-made bridges don’t often exist. Instead, we balance rock by rock, leaping from one experience to the next. Amy’s journey was no different. Her experiences while a student at the College of St. Benedict, in St. Joseph, Minnesota, offered Amy the stepping stones she needed to find her path.
While in college, a friend once asked Amy what made her the person asked to sit on panels about leadership. Taken aback, her first response was, “nothing.” Nothing, Amy thought, made her particularly special or more worthy than others. But later, she realized that wasn’t exactly true.
Building up to this realization, several events conspired to create an indelible impression. One of the first had happened two years before this conversation with her friend.
Amy, a part of student government at St. Ben’s, a woman’s college, remembers when a conflict erupted between her student government body and the equivalent body at the school’s partner, St. John’s University, a men’s university a few miles away. (The two schools share resources and curricula, acting as one campus in many respects. Both schools, however, had separate student governments.) The substance of the conflict, though lost to time, occasioned an interesting visit.
The president of the St. John’s senate requested some time at the next St. Ben’s senate meeting. Amy remembers he walked in and said something like, “I just want to say what I came to say and not have a conversation about it.” With this declaration he continued, “I think the St. Ben’s Senate does a great job with planning the dances and the service committee meetings, but when it comes to the audit committee and financial matters, you’re weak.” Then he walked out.
Though no one, including Amy, said much at the time, something began to foment in Amy’s brain. A voice inside her head gathered strength.
Amy started to notice other things. Like the fact that the St. Ben’s endowment was almost non-existent compared to a fairly large one at St. John’s (Though better, St. Ben’s still lags St. John’s with $60.3M in 2016 compared to $159.3M for St. John’s).
And why, in Amy’s experience did the graduates of St. Ben’s want to have the name of St. John’s on their diplomas, but the reverse wasn’t true?
Given what she’d seen, how a subtle but pernicious disparity between men and women seemed more apparent than she had realized before, Amy considered her friend’s question in a different light. “I realized,” Amy said, “that maybe the one thing that may be different was that I always was told I could and should be a leader.” It was this thought that prompted her to think about what her role could be in getting a leadership message out to all young women
Translating Interest to Action
After she graduated from St. Ben’s Amy earned her Masters from Hamline University, studying girls and women in leadership.
Then, she worked from 1996-2008 running programs for women and girls at the YWCA and Women Venture, a Minneapolis-based organization devoted to women achieving economic success through small business ownership. She followed this with four years at the state legislature directing the Office on the Economic Status of Women.
She joined the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in 2011, working as a project director for the Office of Minority and Women Inclusion until taking a project director role reporting directly to the First Vice President.
Amy also serves on the board of the Illusion Theater, a local company with a mission to catalyze personal and social change.
Mother to two kids, Alice and Andy, and wife to Matt, Amy is the quintessential steward of good things for woman and anyone facing discrimination of any kind. In fact, she works harder than anyone I’ve ever met in the flesh. If I didn’t know for a fact she swears like a sailor, I’d nominate her for sainthood. (Then again, swearing shouldn’t disqualify anyone in my opinion.)
Amy Got Mad
In truth, Amy may have let loose a string of swears the day she read a Star Tribune article in the Variety section.
The article published in April 2018 Who’s the Boss? Research Reveals Unconscious Gender Bias made the voice, the one that began to gather strength while experiencing the same bias more than twenty years ago, roar.
Taking action, Amy wrote a letter to the editor of the Star Tribune in response. In her own words:
“I was immediately annoyed. First, the fact that this topic shows up in the Variety section and not Business tells me that the issue is interesting but not serious. And second, while the content of the article itself is commendable, it adds to a fundamental problem with the discourse about women and leadership: all talk, minimal action.”
The article highlighted the results of science. Naomi Oreskes in her Ted talk, Why We Should Trust Scientists, speaks to the importance of the scientific method and peer review. Scientists publish their work and expect their peers to validate the results. And when they have, we can put that particular question to bed, at least for awhile. The study published in the Star Tribune wasn’t bad or flawed. On the contrary, the problem Amy saw had little to do with the science itself.
The Big Question: Too Much Talk about Women and Leadership?
Instead, Amy asks a more fundamental question: Could all these studies and the articles published in the media highlighting nearly the same information we’ve known for decades lead us down the wrong path? Could the fact we keep studying a particular topic and talking about it over and over suggest the jury is still out about whether or not there’s a real, actual problem here? Or equally bad, could it be that when we study and study again, we’re substituting research for action?
In demonstration of the very thing she thought was missing, she did something. She wrote that letter to the editor, providing practical advice for all of us. She spoke with authority. A decades-long career serving and supporting women, girls, and many others infused her thoughtful words with gravitas. She wrote, “I am shoulder to shoulder at home and at work with women and men who are serious about this issue and more. I am both frustrated (and tired!) by lack of action, yet I am committed to change. Part of that commitment means insisting that as a society, we take our contemplative deliberation in issues like women and leadership and transform them into action. We must.”
“There is,” she continued, “Nothing left to wait for except for us.”
Leadership isn’t standing at a microphone asking others to follow a movement. It’s standing with others and simply moving.
Your turn: Where do you think we stand today with equality for women? Do you think more action and less talk would close the remaining gaps?