Women in Leadership: An Interview with Ella Bell

We need to do more to include women from all backgrounds in discussions about work and leadership.

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On March 7, the Center for American Progress inaugurated its women’s leadership series with “Blind Spots and Double Binds: The Leadership Issues for Women of Color.” Afterward, CAP Senior Fellow Judith Warner interviewed panelist Ella L.J. Edmondson Bell, an associate professor of business administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and the founder and president of ASCENT, a national nonprofit organization committed to the professional development and career advancement of multicultural women.

Judith Warner: We started off our series of events and papers on women’s leadership by focusing on the leadership issues of women of color, really wanting to broaden the conversation about women’s leadership in America, which has been hot for about a year now but has also been very narrow and very partial. What’s been missing?

Ella Bell: It is critically important that we bring all women ahead rather than just a certain segment of the female population. I think what’s very interesting in the conversation now—and we need to give Sheryl Sandberg some credit whether you agree with Lean In or whether you don’t agree with Lean In—is that younger women connected to that book. Younger women saw themselves in reading that book, and younger women realized they weren’t where they needed to be or where they wanted to be. Younger women recognize that they’ve got to be involved in making the change to bring women ahead. And that’s critically important, if for no other reason than that they were using the “f” word and they honored Gloria Steinem. So we are beginning to see a rebirth, if you will. The problem is … my fear is that it is a rebirth of only a certain group: elite women, white women, educated women. If you happen to be part of that circle as a woman of color, and there are women of color in those circles, you have some voice. But I’m not sure that we are being collaborative or being allies with each other to really address the broader issues around women in our society and our country.

JW: So how do we go about addressing that? How do you bring that kind of change when in fact it’s only a certain segment of the female population that really gets its voice elevated? How do you bring all these other voices to the table in a meaningful way?

EB: I think we need to have a place to have the voices in the room, number one. We keep talking about pay equity, but it’s pay equity that impacts basically those in the corporate reality; they’re not addressing pay equity in school systems—where women don’t get paid the same amount—or women who are in health care, or women who are in social services, or women who work for the government. We really have to have a dialogue when we bring those voices in and a place that will create that. Whether it’s a think tank, a series of meetings—and I don’t mean “show and tell” meetings; we are so past the age where I need to sit in a room and hear about, “Well, this is what’s happening to the women”—we need to roll up our sleeves and say, “Okay, this is what we need to do to make a difference.”

JW: Leadership is a word that can be alienating to people who don’t identify with it, either because they don’t see women like themselves represented in those roles or because they don’t see themselves within the traditional definition of leadership. But when we talk about leadership—say, here at CAP, in this context—we’re really talking about economic empowerment. Political empowerment. What it means to have a voice that is heard. But these words that often lead us to talking about the pay gap, to talking about income inequality, say, when we’re talking about empowerment, also lead us to talking about prejudice and racism—and these are not such feel-good words in the way that leadership is.

EB: They’re not sexy. But we have to understand that in our country, those are the divisive elements in our society, historically. And if you don’t talk about them, if you don’t bring them to the forefront, then you’re not going to really address the real issues. It will continue to create this division between those who have and those who do not have.

And the other thing is, the people who we’re talking about, the have-nots—those are the worker bees, those are the people in our call centers, taking care of our elders, educating our children. And we need to understand that they constitute a very important part of our society. It’s not an afterthought, not at all.

JW: You travel between two worlds as a professor of business at Tuck and founder of ASCENT, your nonprofit aimed at developing the leadership skills of women of color. You consult with companies. When everyone wants to hear the business case for women’s leadership, how do you make that?

EB: You make that [case] by the fact that within the next five years, you’re going to have more women in the workforce than men. You make the case that if you really want to have an effective, competitive business, then you need to develop your women. Part of what we do at Tuck is to recognize that leadership is at all levels. That’s number one. Number two, it’s not about male or female. If you talk to young males, and I teach a lot of young males—young white males—what’s very interesting is that they don’t want the same workplaces that their fathers had. [Young men] want to spend time with their families, they want time to reflect and to think about the kind of leaders they want to be, the kind of leaders they are; they need time also to be able to be innovative, to be creative, to be able to come up with new ideas and products that we haven’t seen before that will carry us forward. They understand that they need all of this.

So when we’re talking about a workplace that believes in developing people, that believes in allowing people to be their best innovative creative selves, that’s not just a gender issue; that wants to [allow people to] be more collaborative, that’s not just a gender issue; that wants to [allow people to] spend time with their children, it’s not just a gender issue, it’s a societal issue.

JW: And that leads us to another point: changing the culture of work.

EB: Oh, yes. The cultures that we now see in most workplaces are highly individualistic, highly competitive. There’s an old sociological study done in the ‘50s or ‘60s called The Organization Man. It talked about what the workforce needed, and it was about face time, it was about being there, it was about showing your loyalty, and it was [about] showing how you were the best among the ranks. It wasn’t collaborative, it wasn’t about team work; it was about proving you were the best, the youngest, the brightest, and you were willing to do it all and show how hard you could work and demonstrate this every day. You take that model today and people are burned out. And you add technology to that model and it’s deadly because work never turns off.

The reality of it is we’ve always played into the traditional masculine—hypermasculine—culture in the workplace, and we need to understand how detrimental that is to both men and women. The question is: How do you dismantle that? And there are two broader questions. First, what’s the nature of work, and can we redefine the nature of work? Number two, once we define it, what does “competence” look like—because we define competence in the organizational male model, which is always going to work against women to some degree. And it’s going to work to a lesser degree against men. We need policy. We need policy to help us reshape the workforce of tomorrow.

JW: Do we have any models for this? Do we have models for policy in the United States or abroad? Do we have models, and since we have no policies in the United States, do we have models of corporations that are moving in the right direction? Do we know what this looks like?

EB: I don’t know if we totally know what this looks like. I think some companies are beginning to grapple with this. If you look at a company such as Deloitte, Deloitte has a very good brand around doing this kind of work, quite honestly, about keeping women at the forefront, about bringing women who decide to leave to have families, to bring them back in. You have smaller companies such as General Mills, which is doing this as well. I think it’s harder, though, for the financial institutions to do this.

JW: Because of their cultures?

EB: Yes, because of their cultures and because of the demands of that work. But we need to have those companies take the risk. All we need is one that’s willing to take the risk and see how we can do this. But you’ve got to have the policy to support it; you’ve got to have the money to support this. This is an area where we need research. And that requires resources. Policy and resources, and I think we’re lacking both.

JW: You said earlier, “roll up our sleeves”—so what is the takeaway? How do we all pull together and actually make change?

EB: We need [coalitions]. It’s an old word, but it is so much needed right now. It really, really is, particularly in the gender space. If not, my fear is that we will continue to be segmented, we will continue to think about only the elite, educated women and what their situations are as individual stories, instead of recognizing that we have a whole group behind us.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Judith Warner is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Judith Warner

Senior Fellow