A seat at the table, the importance of female leaders


Illustration by Anahy Diaz

Top Left: Diane Golding. Top Right: Sarah Huizar. Bottom Left: Karla Ayala. Bottom Right: Crystal Cholewa.

As 2020 began, and just before COVID19 struck, 21% of toplevel leadership roles were held by women, and 3% of that by women of color, according to LeanIn.org. Change is happening, albeit slow, and seemingly dismal, but these statistics represent a 3.7 percentage point increase in a six-year period. While this merits its own discussion, we feel it’s important to acknowledge the impact that COVID-19 will likely have on the upward trend of women in leadership positions. But why is having women in leadership roles so important? Ask yourself this question and think about the women in your life who have served as your own role models. Who have, by example and deeds, helped you be the person you are today. 

Theres an old saying that behind every great man is a woman holding everything together. The truth is that too many capable, smart, talented women did not and do not have the opportunities to pursue their very own greatness. And this, in turn, is our loss. In our UTEP community were very fortunate to have women leaders – we see them in our university faculty from President, Heather Wilson, Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs, Ann Quiroz Gates, Faculty Senate President, Gina Nuñez-Mchiri, to Cigdem Sirin Villalobos, Director of the Center for Faculty Leadership and Development, and Beth Brunk-Chavez, Dean of Extended University. And thats just to name a few. We need these women and all those who haveand continue tobreak down the barriers they saw in front of them, and swing open the doors to those leadership roles that have long been blockaded from womenand especially women of color. Our daughters need them, and our mothers celebrate them; we need the ideas and diverse perspectives women bring. There is a reason why research shows that companies with women in top managements positionexperience above-average profitabilityproductivity, and overall creativity. 

There are members of the Yes, She Can! team who have been barrier breakers, as well as those who have been raised by them. Whether the result of being raised by a strong group of women, progressive and forward-thinking parents, or being the sole provider for a home, theres no question that both of these groups have come together in a meaningful way to build foundation for the program. Theres a common thread between so many of us on the border, and perhaps, thats where our community really begins, and where we find the soil beneath us that is important to any structure. That common thread is the story of family members coming to the United States from Mexico as immigrants, the true pioneers of whatbecome a generation of motivated, strong-willed young women. Our parents and grandparents came to the U.S. with high-hopes and modest beginnings, but with an abundance of love and unity. When youre surrounded by loved ones who encourage you to do better, be better, and earn better than they did, working hard to achieve goals becomes the norm. Many times, they may not have even known what the end goal of their efforts were, but they knew their hard work was the key to their children’s success. 

Living in El Paso, we can be privileged in that the Mexican American community is and remains the majority demographic, and the normFor many of us, its not until sometime during young adult hood, when we face our own barriers and come understand we have a chance at opening doors for others, that their sacrifices come full circle. Another common thread between us is the idea that we leave El Paso but inevitably come back homeeven if at least for some period of time. Maybe we left with the intention to settle down elsewhere, maybe we studied abroad, or fell in love. Sometimes, it takes leaving your home in order to truly understand who built it, and why it was built in the first place. Coming to this understanding makes coming back home much more powerful and fulfilling experience. 

Representation begins with that diverse room of deans, faculty, and presidentsThat diverse room holds space for young minds to see themselves in them. This then provides young minds an invitation to shoot for the stars, and further, the way their parents said they could. The slippery slope analogy is almost always used in a negative context. Its the idea that one thing leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to a less than desirable result.

But what would happen if we take a second to think about the slippery slopenot as a fallacy, but instead turn it on its head and think of it as a staircase, or a ladder? Thereve been tremendous female leaders who built rung after rung, and stair step after stair step, for the purpose of reaching that seat at the table. Not only for themselves, but especially for those who will follow. Likewise, there are people who have been willing to get out of their seats to stand up for these women. These people, typically men, serve to foster change and equality within the monochromatic space where womenamong many other groups, are severely and disproportionately represented.

 Yes, there are women who may aim to hinder other women’s progress or success, but its essential to ask ourselves why that is. For example, in the field of Engineering, women may find themselves competing against each other for a job. The concept that “there can only be one” is extremely prevalent in an industry dominated by men. It comes down to a matter of culture, and ultimately, the way society has shaped up to be. That is, by instilling this unproductive, and devastatingly unsupported, gendered competition in the first place.  

People helping people is much more of a radical concept than it should be. We should all want to help each other no matter who we are. But the truth is that this is not always the way the world functions. It takes looking at the truth, societal downfalls, and flawed ideologies to begin applying a solution-based mindset. 

Yes, She Can! and the young leaders who are a part of the mentorship program’s team are a direct result of generations prior to them who have sought to normalize helping others, no matter how “radical” it might be. Those prior who have asserted their voices, singing songs of equality, are the reason were beginning to see more and more women leaders. Yes, there is still much work to be done, but theres also room to celebrate the climb; both of these can exist at once, together in the same space

So, whats the importance of women in leadership roles? Well, here’s your answer: to ask more diverse questionsto contribute to more diverse solutions, for this very diverselabyrinthine world. 

Karla Ayala, Crystal Cholewa, Diane Golding and Sarah Huizar are members of UTEP’s Yes She Can! and may be reached at [email protected]