Below is an interview I did in January 2012 with Fay Simer, Senior Transportation Planner at MnDOT, about the 19th book in the Commissioner’s Reading Corner Book of the Month series: Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders by Alice Eagly and Linda Carli.
Tang: What motivated you to step up and want to lead this book discussion?
Simer: I think the topic of how women become leaders is relevant, particularly in the transportation industry, a field traditionally dominated by men. I saw the topic had not yet been brought up as part of the Commissioner’s Reader Corner and I thought this book could add something to the discussion series.
Tang: Why did you pick this book?
Simer: Many authors on the topic of women’s advancement essentially tell women that they either need to behave “more like men,” i.e., more aggressively, or “more like women,” i.e., more collaboratively. Through the Labyrinth stood out to me because it discusses the merits of different leadership styles and helps readers understand how their application in different professional settings is typically perceived by others.
Tang: What do you like most about this book?
Simer: The authors identify building social capital as an essential tool used by women who have achieved notable professional success. As a board member of the Women’s Transportation Seminar in Minnesota, a professional organization with a mission to advance women in the transportation field, this book validates my belief in our work and the relevance of the group’s mission.
Tang: Traditionally, the biggest problem women face in their careers is a glass-ceiling in leadership positions. Nowadays, more women are in leadership positions. However, female leaders still face more obstacles and challenges than their male counterparts. What kinds of issues do women leaders have to struggle with today?
The book confirms that many of the usual suspects still contribute to the “labyrinth” of obstacles women face in their climb to the top. Married women still spend more hours per week on household chores and child-rearing than married men (though men’s participation is increasing steadily); women still face stereotypes regarding what behaviors and attitudes are appropriate for their gender, and many organizational cultures do not support women seeking leadership experience. The point is that there is no clear path for a woman seeking to attain the top of her field; many women negotiate these barriers on their own. Discussing these barriers openly will help us learn how to better support women collectively as they advance in their careers.
Tang: You have taken on a leadership role with the Minnesota Women’s Transportation Seminar. What kind of dilemma and obstacles have you experienced as an emerging women leader?
Simer: I am the type of person that needs to be challenged and I like pushing myself in different directions. One of the things I appreciate about my board position on the Women’s Transportation Seminar is the opportunity to take on roles that aren’t part of my job description at MnDOT. Whether I’m organizing an event, leading other volunteers, or setting the board’s initiatives for the year, I like the chance to be creative and to push myself to try different aspects of leadership activities that are new to me.
Tang: The authors say, to increase gender equality in the workplace, change must take place on four levels: the culture, the organization, the family and the individual. What can MnDOT and what can individuals do to improve our workplace for women leaders?
Simer: The book points out that an organization’s social culture can obstruct women’s access to advancement opportunities as much as individual prejudices. The authors note that demands for long work hours, travel, and the ability to relocate- necessities in many managerial positions, can be especially difficult for women, who typically have more household obligations than men. In addition, the book notes that women face challenges obtaining appropriately demanding work assignments, called developmental job experiences that are prerequisites for promotion. I think these are areas that leaders at MnDOT could take a closer look as they determine how to distribute advancement opportunities equitably across the organization.
Tang: What are the most important lessons you have learned from the book? What are the most important ideas you would like people to take away from this book?
Simer: Studies on corporate executives and boards of directors in US firms find that the inclusion of women is associated with stronger financial performance. Young men entering the workforce are more likely to question why they don’t see women in managerial positions than why they do. Promoting parity among women and men’s leadership opportunities is an organizational concern, not a “women’s” concern.
Tang: What lessons have you learned in your career that you would like to share with other women and would benefit other women to become more successful leaders?
Simer: I place great value on the relationships I’ve had with mentors throughout my career development. My advice is to seek out people with qualities you admire and to learn as much from their leadership style as you can.
Tang: Tell us a little bit about your reading habits.
Simer: I love reading! For anyone interested in an honest and insightful account of one woman’s rise to the top of her field, I highly recommend Katherine Graham’s Personal History.