Since spring 2015, Georgia State’s WomenLead initiative has groomed undergraduates to enter the workforce unafraid of stirring up “good trouble.”
By Bobbin Eastwood
While waiting for her interview in a conference room at BlackRock, Natsai Ndebele stood like Wonder Woman (with a proud chest and her hands on her hips) in order to calm her nerves. After meeting with four software engineers, she scored a BlackRock Founders Scholarship, which includes a spot in the company’s 2018 Summer Internship Program as well as a $15,000 award. Ndebele says “power posing” helped her nail the interview. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy famously delivered a TED Talk on this confidence-boosting tactic, but Ndebele heard about it in WomenLead, a program at Georgia State University that equips undergraduate females with the skills and experiences they need to become leaders in the workplace.
Ndebele walked away from WomenLead with more than good posture. The WomenLead in Business course, which she took in fall 2016, helped her overcome imposter syndrome. Next spring she will graduate with a B.S. in computer science and enter a field dominated by men. After attending networking events and striking up conversations with powerful females like former Spanx CEO Laurie Ann Goldman and music and entertainment industry executive Tena Clark, Ndebele built the confidence to be vocal in class. “A lot of women avoid speaking up because they fear being wrong or perceived as arrogant,” Ndebele says. “But it’s okay to be wrong. You’ll never learn by keeping quiet.”
Women’s voices need to be heard. But Carolina Blanco thinks a reserved demeanor can be more impactful than talking for the sake of it. Blanco, who works as an application developer at Vanguard and participated in WomenLead’s inaugural spring 2015 cohort, felt better about her muted presence in meetings after Phyllis Parker delivered a guest lecture in class. Parker, executive director of the Center for Health Information Technology at Georgia State’s Robinson College of Business, stressed that “silent leadership” is a strength that should not be undervalued. “At first I saw it as a weakness,” Blanco explains. “But now I’m assured that when I do speak, I’m saying something of value.”
WomenLead grooms students to not only navigate networking situations but also advocate for themselves. Dana Powell cites the program’s negotiation training as the impetus for requesting a raise when she transitioned from a trainee to business assistant role at Turner Broadcasting. Over the course of the semester, she and her classmates read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” which touches on the gender pay gap. “Part of the problem stems from women’s discomfort asking for more,” Powell says. “But if you don’t ask for more, you aren’t just going to get it.” (Powell’s request for a salary increase was successful.)
Although the purpose of WomenLead is to accelerate female undergraduates’ advancement, men who meet the scholastic criteria are welcome to sign up as well. Finance major Justin Bell is taking WomenLead in Business this semester. Bell says he considers himself a fair and honest person, but the class opened his eyes to certain unconscious biases, such as the unspoken expectation that women should volunteer for administrative tasks like recording meeting notes. “We talked about stirring up ‘good trouble’ in the workplace,” Bell says. “Having disruptive conversations like that opens the door to change.”
Since its spring 2015 inception, the WomenLead initiative has launched two classes in addition to the business course: WomenLead in Science as well as WomenLead in Policy and Politics. They are open to undergraduate students across the entire university, underscoring the point WomenLead is on a mission to make: no matter the industry, females belong there.