Empowering Women 101

by Nikki Goldman

RISE Leadership Forum

Sheila Dundon, MS, SPHR, president and founder of the Priority Leadership Group, knows a thing or two about the workplace power structure and how women factor into it. She earned her masters in industrial organizational psychology, but more than that, she’s a woman herself—and has had to navigate the professional world as one.

“Over the last 25 years, I worked as a director of human resources and later went into consulting, and both internally and externally I experienced a glass ceiling myself,” she notes. “I saw other women get misinterpreted and misunderstood and put the kibosh on career advancement.”

Recognizing the difficulties she and other women have faced, Dundon is launching the RISE Leadership Forum in Monterey, Calif., an intensive leadership development and coaching program for female executives. A growing number of programs like hers are giving high-powered women the tools they need—proverbial rocks, if you will—to break a glass ceiling that still remains.

Dundon’s decision to start a program is not just based on experience, but on hardline data and facts. She points out that women represent 15% of C-level positions, and that the U.S. ranks 72nd in the world when it comes to female representation in parliamentary or political positions.

Why, despite progress, are women still finding it difficult to ascend to the top? Dundon focuses much of her research on the power of social norms. “In social conditioning, we believe we shouldn’t boast and should be modest. We don’t push forward and we don’t push back. Things we’re taught as little girls are perpetuated in the workplace, and then we take helper jobs.”

Succeeding in the modern workplace, she says, requires the ability to be strong and savvy without sacrificing authenticity or necessarily femininity. It also takes a capacity to defy misperceptions, something women can find difficult to do. “We’re in a meeting and it’s as if nobody heard our voice, and we say, ‘What did I do?’ When we’re doing that, turning inward, we’re not the best we can be outwardly.”

Addressing these and other issues, Dundon’s workshop, set to unfold over the course of a year, will address a variety of topics, including the development of a leader identity, negotiation and visibility, networking, mentoring, mastering executive communication and group leadership.

“Half the program is about leading yourself, and then it’s about building skills to lead a team,” she says.

Dundon hopes to draw on the natural assets professional women possess; things like openness to a variety of viewpoints, the ability to collaborate, a willingness to learn and what she calls “fierce advocacy.” Her hope is that her group of female pupils will be able to empower others, creating a ripple effect in the executive world.

“Women don’t need to be fixed,” she points out. “This is about learning how to advocate for yourself; it’s a place to build confidence.” That confidence, in the end, is the best resource against obstacles that continue to stand in the way of gender equity.

Related Story: “Woman’s Place: The industry’s most influential women break the glass ceiling.”

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