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Celebrating women’s equality: Leading with conviction, bravery and empathy

The centennial of the women’s suffrage movement and last month’s celebration of Women’s Equality Day remind us of our country’s powerful female leaders who overcame challenges and inspired change. Their legacies are especially impactful during times of unrest, division and difficulty like we find ourselves in today.

At University of Phoenix, our student population is comprised of 67 percent working women, many who are mothers, juggling the demands of full-time employment and raising a family. I find hope and inspiration in their stories and I am proud to know they will be our female leaders of the future.

As any great leader knows, we cannot ignore our history. I believe we can learn from the attributes of conviction, bravery and empathy that have been modeled by leaders of the past—Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman and Eleanor Roosevelt (and so many others)—to help shape our future.

Susan B. Anthony’s Conviction

It takes conviction for a leader to stake a claim to a position, influence policies and make tough decisions in an organization.

Susan B. Anthony embodied conviction. At a time when women were silenced, Susan B. Anthony sparked a movement of social reform and rights that eventually changed the lives of women across the country. She taught me that speaking up for what I believe in is right, even when it is not popular or challenges the status quo.

We must navigate through the noise and have conviction about our values and beliefs. If you take a stance, yes, you will have critics. But remember, Susan B. Anthony and the suffragettes held the wildly unpopular opinion that women had the right to vote. Their conviction and persistence saw it through to change.

Harriet Tubman’s Bravery

Leadership is not about the leader—it is about the team and the people that are part of the organizational mission. Great leaders are ultimately servants, determining the best path forward, making decisions for the greater good and sharing with others best practices to encourage success. It takes bravery to lead the charge and make decisions, particularly in times of turmoil.

One of the most extraordinary examples of bravery in leadership comes from the life and work of Harriet Tubman. When Tubman escaped slavery, she could have started a new life. Instead, she thought of the welfare of those she left behind—people she had never met who were suffering as slaves. She bravely risked everything to help them find freedom.

There are many examples of bravery today. Women activists leading the fight against inequality or other social injustices. We see bravery today in the large numbers of women working on the front lines during the pandemic. Women in service-oriented occupations that are predominantly female, like nursing and teaching, are serving others even when much is still unknown about the pandemic. They continue to put the health and well-being of others ahead of their own, showing bravery in the face of the medical and social adversity of the pandemic.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Empathy

People who lead with empathy are able to better assess and prioritize the needs of those they serve. It is the kind of leadership we are seeing from many organizations in the national discussion on race and social justice. Change is not possible without the ability to recognize and acknowledge the experiences of others.

Eleanor Roosevelt exemplified empathy. The former first lady, diplomat and activist was an advocate for the disenfranchised. At a time of crisis during the Great Depression and WWII, she stood up for the rights of others and worked to make their lives better, despite facing criticism for doing so. Ultimately, it was her ability to empathize with the plights of others that opened the door for later reforms that improved the lives of millions.

As a leader, I am inspired by Roosevelt’s legacy, by her ability to recognize when others were suffering and her commitment in her work toward equity. We become better leaders when we reach out to others, lift them up and set them up for success. It is through empathy that we can assess what they need and what we can do to help in this pursuit, meeting the needs of individuals to strengthen the organization from within.

University of Phoenix is currently working with employees who have lost loved ones, who have become ill themselves or are caring for someone who is sick. We are recognizing a lack of healthcare resources in rural areas of our country that may be impacting our employees. We see the need for organizations to bolster technology options for employees who don’t have the infrastructure available to them to work remote or for children to access their school materials online.

We see the need for organizational resources to help alleviate the strain on mental health and overall wellness that has been exacerbated by necessary social distancing. We are embracing the approach of flexible schedules for parents who are trying to work and educate their children at the same time and in the same space. We do this because we are making the effort to truly understand what we need from one another as we continue to move forward.

As the uncertainty in this world continues, we must recognize that, at times, it will take conviction to challenge the status quo, bravery to put ourselves on the front lines and empathy to provide equitable support. But if we follow the roadmap of the inspiring journeys of leaders like Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman and Eleanor Roosevelt, we are reminded that those of us in leadership positions can truly make a difference and effect lasting change.