Women and Leadership: Stop Talking. Start Doing

women, leadership, star tribune

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
women, leadership
Navigating our path to purpose starts with self awareness. Photo by Daniil Silantev on Unsplash

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.

Women and Leadership
A picture of Amy back in the day.

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.

Women and leadership
Amy Brenengen: a powerhouse of purpose focused on supporting women and girls to fulfill their unique leadership potential.

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.)

Women and Leadership
Amy and her daughter, Alice.
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 e 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? 

Featured Photo by Omar Lopez on Unsplash

Author: Angela Noel

Seeker and promoter of awesome people and ideas.

30 thoughts on “Women and Leadership: Stop Talking. Start Doing”

  1. Yes, yes and yes. It’s all very well talking the talk, but we will only ever get results when we walk the walk too. I’m constantly frustrated in life when words aren’t turned into action. We have to be proactive to achieve proper equality. Any sounds like an amazing woman. I felt so angry when I read the bit about the president from St John’s. So obnoxious.

    1. Amy is awesome! I wonder if that fellow ever reflected back on that moment and thought about his obnoxiousness. It would say a lot about him if he did.
      You and Amy would get along great, I think. The proactive part–working for positive good rather than just reacting to the bad is what will make the difference.
      I also think I must stand up for myself more, shedding the old thoughts of “well, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or risk rejection if I ask for a raise…” I need to empower myself, not wait for others to do it for me, as well as support and celebrate the women doing just that.
      Thank you as always for your thoughtful comment!

    2. Well said Hayley, and I totally agree. I must admit to being glad not to be in the workforce any longer. Thought provoking post, Angela!!

  2. I think that as long as we use male dominated measuring standards to judge success for woman, we will never measure up. How about we create a new yard stick.

    1. I think that’s an interesting point. I continue to wonder why girls struggle to maintain self-esteem as young teens. What is it about puberty or how are we setting girls up differently than boys as they experience adolescence? I know boys have their own cultural fallacies like “boys don’t cry” and other nonsense. But there’s something about those years for girls that continues to threaten their views of themselves into the future. How do we, as you say, change the conversation and measure success and value differently?

  3. More action for sure. Controversy over Irish entry in Euro vision due to two men dancing but a few years ago a song where scantily clad milkmaids simulated sexual moves on stage was fine…we are getting nowhere fast.

  4. More action definitely but talking too otherwise the action can be meaningless.

    1. Yes–I agree. Awareness is important and the dialogue is too. It’s just too much talk can mean not enough action. Definitely a balance needed. And I think Amy strives for that too.
      Thank you for reading, Rachael!

  5. I love Amy! She is inspirational. I totally agree with her. We’ll only see real change happen on the ground when we walk the talk. Empty words will certainly not take us there. In India, we still see few women in leadership roles. They has to change, for sure.

    1. Hi, Rachna! Thank you for reading and adding your thoughts. You bring up a great point that the challenge of both equal opportunity and cultural perceptions of women in leadership is a global issue. Though we need to act locally, the challenge is universal.

  6. So proud to call both you and Amy friends. You both inspire me to do better, be better and think larger.

  7. Amy sounds amazing!

    I find this whole topic frustrating and uplifting at the same time. The more doers (like Amy) we have, the better the world will be. 🙂

    1. I agree-frustrating and uplifting. It’s interesting that it can be both. Any is an excellent example of what to do. She doesn’t have it all figured out, she’s just doing the best she can. And we can too!

  8. Awesome post, Angela! Amy sounds like a person I’d like to meet. Gender bias is true problem. Hopefully, now that we’re calling our current leaders on the carpet about it, there’ll be some changes. It’s definitely a process isn’t it?

    1. It definitely is. And I think we are calling some people out for it. It feels like a purge, though, rather than a true inquiry into what the root of these issues. It’s like puling out the weed without digging out what’s beneath. Do I know the answers as to the source of the problem? Clearly not. But I think it begins very very early and it’s part of the experience of both girls and boys that we put girls in the background. It’s an idea I continue to ponder.

  9. It’s an interesting challenge – when I first started work I can remember my boss TELLING me that the promotion had gone to my male equivalent not because he was better than me but because ‘he needed a career to ensure he was earning enough when he started his family’ At least we’ve moved on from that…

    1. Yes. Wow. I can’t believe that happened. But, then again, I can. And I’m sure that your boss truly thought he was doing the right thing. Which is really what makes these things so insidious. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  10. I agree that there isn’t call for any more studies of something that we already know is a fact (lack of equality). There isn’t going to be a study that miraculously changes the tide and makes everyone champion for that equality. It will happen when more and more of us act in its favor to tip the scale.

    1. I remember a song by John Mayer with a lyric that went something like, “Did anybody ever change their mind from the paint on a sign?” I think the information is helpful to have–for sure. But it’s not enough. I’ve been thinking about how germ theory was around for hundreds of years before it was “proven” as fact. The persistence of the wrong idea made people resistant to the right one. So the discovery of viruses where they could actually be seen was helpful in turning the tide. That’s a good thing. But with things like gender bias, where we can’t actually point to a thing, like a wart, and say, “Eureka!” it seems harder to just put the studies aside and move forward towards real change.
      I definitely don’t know the answers–and I’m not done thinking about it for sure. But, Amy has some excellent ideas on ways to take steps to just keep moving.
      Thank you so much for reading and for doing what you do–getting out in nature and doing the hard things to inspire others to know they can do it too.

  11. What a profound post you have written; although, you are a profound person, so I’m not surprised. Beautifully written, compelling arguments, and a strong call to action make this a powerful piece. I do believe that more action could help close the gaps, but I also believe there will be hurdles – those that don’t want the change. Persistence does have a way of getting things done. We just have to know which way to push. This is where those leaders with a vision come in – like Amy. Together we can get it done!

    1. Thanks, Erin! I think you’re right. I feel like universal agreement on the “right” way to think about women and leadership is impossible. But, I do believe we’ll reach a tipping point–like when most people get vaccinated even the ones that don’t still get the benefits because the disease is simply less prevalent. Or that’s how I’m thinking about it. I appreciate your thoughts, as always.

  12. I think this is a complex subject myself and the problem is that so far the inequality has gotten behind a few facts. What I never appreciated until recently was that the way men and women process information is different in a way that the wording of something like a job advert could subconsciously be tilted in the favour of a man applying despite being openly accepting. The things that are obvious need addressing but also there’s a lot of misunderstanding too.

    1. There is, you’e right. I recently heard a story from a woman who shared that her computer science class, made up of 80% men did a classroom project to prove “women are the root of all evil.” That’s a pretty obvious example of what NOT to do, but it all creates subtle impressions. I was watching Suits (the show Meghan Markle was on) and it’s filled with “don’t be a such a girl” type comments. For sure it’s complicated. I don’t think we should throw blame around so much as we should just try and think about the effects of these subtle messages just as you’re doing. Thanks for commenting–I appreciate your perspective.

      1. All these examples are perfect of how people don’t stop and think about what they’re doing. Because it’s what they’ve always done they carry on with this mindset. It’s going to take a lot of work to shift.
        Thank you, I’m glad you appreciated it 😀

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