Serving Home Away from Home

During the past ten weeks, I had the opportunity to serve home away from home. I witnessed one of the best exchanges of skills, conversations, and resources between leaders and followers in an office setting. WfWI is a dedicated and collaborative team that creates a welcoming environment for its employees and interns. I think a big part of this relationship has been the dedication of all the individuals working at WfWI to the vision and the mission of the organization. As a result, the staff, volunteers, and interns are encouraged to advance the mission of the organization through cooperation, specifically by working with different departments. 

These departments include the executive office, the global program, the marketing, development, and communications team, and the global and US HR team. The executive office is led by the Chief Executive Officer, Laurel Adams, and the chief of staff who directs the whole organization. The three other teams receive orders from the executive office and pass it through their chain of command. As a result, this impacts how work is directed, and responsibilities are divided. Upon receiving direction from the executive branch, the directors of each branch are self-directed for the most part as they make sure to set and pass standardized procedures to those below them. For example, the director of the external engagement department is responsible for finding corporate partners who are interested in raising funds or brand awareness for the organization. The director is the one who speaks with the corporate partners during the meetings and represents the organization. Upon gaining a clear understanding of whom they are working with and what form of partnership they plan to have, the director then guides the rest of the staff in that team to conduct research and create a concept note with ideas and carry out the rest of event planning.

Furthermore, biweekly meetings are held by the directors of the departments to ensure that everyone on the team is on the same page and address any issues or questions the staff may have. While there is a vertical division of power, I have seen that the sense of team building and the dedication to the mission of the organization takes priority before the power dynamic. The leaders of the departments make sure that the teams have a sense of direction, feel appreciated, and that the required tasks are completed without taking away the authenticity, experience, and perspective of any of their followers. I have to say that my leadership studies courses prepared me well to look for an authentic style of leadership in which followers were appreciated and felt comfortable to be who they are, and WfWI did a great job of checking this box for me.

The physical space of the office also helps to cover the power dynamic by not giving an impression that there is a division between leaders and followers. The office is open, and everyone shares the same space. No one has their room that is divided by walls and closed doors, but rather everyone has a desk with a clear glass that is transparent and open. When you enter the office, you won’t be able to tell where the CEO of the company may be at or who is sitting at the front desk. Everyone in the office can see and freely interact with each other. The physical space was one of my favorite parts of this experience because it encouraged transparency, reliability, and created an inclusive environment. It was prevalent to have the CEO or a department director, stop by my desk to check-in and see how I liked working here. I appreciated their interest in wanting to learn more about me and my experience at WfWI. I felt encouraged to share that I was blown away by the ambition and the work ethic of those who work here and how open they are to seek partnerships with those who care for a similar kind of work as them. I also got the opportunity to set up a meeting for a University of Richmond alumni who studies at Harvard Law to meet Laurie. This Richmond alum had heard of the work that WfWI did through social media and was interested in meeting the team. I was able to reach out to the executive assistant and set up a time for the UR alum to meet Laurie. I don’t think this would have been possible if I had not interacted with Laurie daily due to the open space of the office and for her leadership style. Additionally, this open space also enabled for expectations to be communicated by those in leadership positions. Overall, I felt encouraged to ask questions and express my thoughts, suggestions, and concerns. 

One theory that I found relevant to the work of WfWI was the role of the incongruity theory. Upon hearing the word “CEO,” it’s prevalent to think of a male leader rather than a female leader occupying the position. However, that is not the case for WfWI who acknowledge and understand that there is a deep divide in authority and power between women and men. They have dedicated their mission and vision to empower women and combat prejudice and stereotypes around women not being able to be independent or equal members of society. Eagly and Carli studied role incongruity theory to explain that the limited number of women in top-level management is due to a perceived incongruity between the attributes of a strong leader and those assigned to the female gender. This incongruity between women and leadership results in the perception that women are less favorable than men as potential occupants of leadership roles (Eagly and Carli). For example, leaders and men are seen as assertive, masterful, and competent, while women are seen as friendly, kind, and unselfish. Eagly and Carli’s role incongruity theory is not the case at WfWI, which is led by competent, assertive leaders who are women. However, this form of incongruity is highly witnessed in the countries that WfWI work with, where women are seen as second class citizens. Afghanistan, my home country is a perfect example where women are not see or encouraged to be leaders, competent or assertive. I personally had to fight through many social streotypes and break many boundaries just to get an education.

Even in the most progressive societies, some beliefs contribute to this incongruity between leadership and women that govern our perceptions of who should be a leader. However, WfWI is committed to empowering women by hiring them as CEOs, VPs, and directors. They have taken this commitment outside of the office space by working with women in countries that are on the list of human rights violations and teaching them skills to build their confidence, know their rights, earn income and gain respect in their communities. The WfWI team is aware of the incongruity of women in leadership roles because it is seen as a violation of stereotypical gender norms and is perceived negatively by most. Seeing those issues, WfWI was started by a woman (Zainab Salabi) who wanted to lead and empower other women. Most of the people who work at this organization are aware of the challenges of being a woman in a leadership role, but they seemed committed to fighting this view through their work. Their awareness helped the employees to strive to do an excellent job at a “masculine task,” be competent and server to empower other women. 

During the past ten weeks, I have been so encouraged to have worked with women who do a phenomenon job leading and completing their tasks; they are ambitious, committed, and excited about the work they do. I don’t think the theory falls short to explain the incongruity of leadership and to be women in society, but this theory does need to be challenged by normalizing the concept of women to take leadership positions. New approaches need to be written to show that competent women and leadership is the norm or should be the norm, and women who want to be CEOs, presidents, or directors should not be excluded from participating in society because of their gender. Given the nature of the work that WfWI does, they are combating the phenomenon that Carli and Eagly describe and sets it as a model for organizations to break this role incongruity stereotype. 

An example of combating this phenomenon was witnessed in the speech that was delivered by Natasha Muwansa at the Women Deliver 2019 Conference which WfWI was attending. This 18-year-old activist from Zambia was one of the speakers for the opening of the conference along with the prime minister of Canada, and the presidents of Ghana, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Compared to the president’s speeches, this young activist and advocate’s speech was powerful and empowering. The presidents spoke of creating opportunities for women, the projects that should be undertaken in their countries to ensure an increase in the numbers of women holding position and how they would continue to help with women empowerment. However, Natasha called out saying that “we are done being beneficiaries…nothing can be done for us without us…you cannot decide for young people without having them in powerful positions”. To me, her speech was a call for normalizing that women too have the voice and power to create change and be in leadership positions. It is great to have men leaders and advocates on the team to partner with in promoting women’s empowerment. However, women need to have the space to practice those roles and be given credit for their leadership. Men can help to break this incongruity by allowing women to speak up for themselves and share their thoughts and ideas. Overall, based on the observations and interactions with my colleagues at the site, I am confident that these individuals at WfWI and those who will join the organization later will continue to promote women empowerment and challenge this incongruity with a similar leadership approach. 

For an organization that has been around for 25 years, WfWI has created a culture that is tied to their dedication and commitment to supporting the most marginalized women in society. While the big picture is “to create a world where women can determine the course of their lives,” this organization recognizes the inequality that some women experience living in war zones and do not necessarily have the tools to pursue this goal. As a result, the core values and beliefs of WfWI are to provide the resources, information, and support needed to help women in conflict zones achieve their full potential. I am thankful for having the opportunity to serve my home through this internship and reinforce women empowerment by working with WfWI.