Mary Simeoli

Mary Simeoli, Title IX coordinator and Director of Equal Opportunity at Union College, spoke to the UMSL community during the Women’s History Event last week. (Screenshot)

Women are good for business. Studies from the Harvard Business Review, and other outlets, have demonstrated that women are better leaders during a crisis, often score higher than men in leadership skills and help companies thrive.

Yet, women remain underrepresented in leadership roles.

On March 9, Mary Simeoli, Title IX coordinator and Director of Equal Opportunity at Union College and a former special victims prosecutor, joined the University of Missouri–St. Louis community during a virtual event to discuss why it’s important to close the gender gap, some underlying reasons women are underrepresented and steps we can take. Read on for some key points from her talk.

The event was organized by the Office of Student Involvement as part of UMSL’s Women’s History Month programming. Coordinator of Student Activities Jessica Mode served as event host.

 1. Power and privilege are different things

Simeoli defined power as the as “the ability to direct and influence behavior, events and allocation of resources” and to be a “decision maker.” Privilege is a type of unearned, societally given power derived from sex, race, gender, ability or societal status.

It’s important to understand the distinction so that those historical imbalances can be corrected. 

“When it comes to talking about privilege, the intersectional space where we talk about privilege, women have had less privilege than other folks and more privilege than others based on their gender, based on their race, so there are a lot of functions at play here,” Simeoli said. “But we’re really talking about and honing in on where and how we can make decisions and how we allocate resources.”

2. Women assimilate to gain power

Women have been trained throughout their lives to assimilate to the culture present in any space, whether that’s kids in a cafeteria or in the workplace. Women have gained power at work, too, by looking, behaving and speaking like the most powerful person in the room.

That’s most often a man.

“The reason this becomes so relevant to us is it really has dictated how women have behaved in professional settings for a really long time,” Simeoli said. “Assimilation to power has historically been women taking on male characteristics, women engaging and assimilating to men’s leadership, versus women assimilating through the commonality of other women in that space.”

3. Focus on perfection holds women back

Since a young age, women are trained to be critical of themselves and compare themselves to other women by self-ranking and categorization. One notable area is weight and ideal image, where women are trained to believe they should always be physically smaller than their current size.

This mentality has real repercussions in the workplace. Simeoli notes a Hewlett-Packard study that found that women would not apply for management positions unless they were 100 percent qualified for a job.

“Male employees were taking more risks, and they were often getting interviewed and getting in front of upper management,” she said. “I can’t help but think of all of the experiences that we’ve missed out on because we weren’t 100 percent qualified.”

The flip side of this is that women in leadership positions were punished more than men when they messed up. Simeoli notes that men are likely to be retrained or given mentors while women were demoted.

“Not only do [women] feel they have to be perfect in order to apply, they feel that for a reason,” she said. “Because if they’re not the perfect manager or supervisor, they’ve seen their colleagues and peers demoted, lose positions, lose titles, change roles, so they looked around and said, ‘It’s not worth taking the risk.’”

4. Shine Theory rises all boats

 Women need other women, Simeoli said. She pointed to a common experience where a woman is ignored only for her idea to gain acceptance when restated by a male colleague.

One solution is Shine Theory.

“It’s a commitment to collaborating with other women rather than competing against other women,” she said. “That commitment to collaborating for me also meant a commitment to celebrating being genuinely excited and happy for the accomplishments of folks around me, rather than being intimidated by them or afraid of them or seeing them as a negative. Really unworking that notion of most or best in my head by saying, ‘If you don’t shine, I don’t shine.’”

Part of this is amplification, an idea started by women in the Obama administration, where women call attention to other women and give credit where it’s due. For example, if a women’s idea is ignored, another individual could restate it and give credit to its originator.

“It’s not just a practice for women with other women,” she said. “Other folks who may be marginalized in places, other folks who may have their voices ignored or talked over at any given time or space, we can use this tool of amplification to make sure that the correct voices are heard.”

Jessica Rogen

Jessica Rogen