Field Notes: Dismantling oppression, empowering women

July 23, 2020
  • Competencies
  • Diversity and Inclusion
  • Leadership and Management
  • Professional Development and Contributions to the Field
  • women

"Field Notes" is a regular Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at connect@aacrao.org.

by Amy E. Harth, PhD, Senior Research Analyst, DeVry University

This July, DeVry University celebrated the first year of our women’s leadership affinity group, EDGE.  The vision of EDGE (Empowerment, Diversity, Growth, Excellence), is to empower a diverse group of women to network, mentor and participate in professional development programs, and to develop and broaden an awareness of strength, potential, and overall leadership for careers that support our students and the broader community.

As part of the programming committee this year, I reflected on this experience. While there are many lessons learned and ideas that excited me about this past year, I want to highlight three that have broad impact on the work of AACRAO members.

1. Relate through shared experience, and honor differences.

Many of the people on the programming committee and in the larger affinity group had shared experiences of sexism that helped us relate. There were practices that we wanted to change and concepts we wanted to introduce to our colleagues. At the same time, some of us were in formal leadership roles while others were still struggling with sexism and other constraints to obtain those roles. Some people had experiences of being mentored while others were looking for that first mentoring experience.

Importantly, these experiences differ because of other factors such as years of work experience, career changes, race and ethnicity, age, disability, and other demographics and both positive and discriminatory experiences. As helpful as it is to find like-minded people who share a key characteristic and passion for change, it is also important to realized that no group is a monolith. Within every group are people who have different experiences that inform their ideas about how to create change. 

2. Focus on people not things.

Fostering teams that are able to notice that different experiences and ideas are a source of strength for a group requires focusing on people. The programming committee benefited from leadership, which set a tone that the agenda was never more important that what people had to contribute. This started by encouraging committee members to share their ideas and to take on roles in which they had no experience. These statements were supported by the team working together to support each other on tasks and continually offering to help each other. The existing hierarchy of people’s roles was not observed on the committee.

We also talked more about why than about what. As important as it was to determine what programming activities we were going to do, we spent more time talking about why we should do certain activities. We did this by listening without thinking we already knew what people were going to say. This helped ensure that our approach honored different experiences and needs and delved deeper than the surface level. 

3. Center both/and thinking.

What both of these elements reveal is that we were trying to accomplish two things at the same time. We valued our shared experiences and recognized that our differences matter too. We absolutely got through the important agenda items, and we worked to make sure committee members felt comfortable being vulnerable. We tried to be open to what is called “both/and” thinking. This is especially important in trying to address a culture of white supremacy.

As Tema Okun explains, either/or thinking is one element of white supremacy culture that encourages a sense of urgency and oversimplifies complex issues. Being focused on both/and thinking helped us recognize and communicate to our colleagues that fostering women’s leadership is good for women and good for our organizations, our economies, and our families. It is good for everyone. Sexism is entwined with other kinds of oppression and when we start to tackle sexism, we should work to see how it intersects with other kinds of oppression. 

I’m now part of the programming committee for DeVry University’s Diversity & Inclusion Council. I look forward to the lessons I will learn as part of this group. I am hopeful that as we work together this year we will be able to both carry forward the lessons from the women’s leadership group and learn new ways to dismantle oppression.