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One of the themes for this year’s International Women’s Day is Women in Leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world. To celebrate, we wanted to highlight the incredible women leading three of the biggest non-profit organizations on the Pier: Chicago Children Museum’s Jennifer Farrington, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Barbara Gaines and Navy Pier’s Marilynn Gardner. Learn more about these extraordinary leaders, their unique journeys and their advice for the next generation of female leaders.
Meet the women leading three of the most iconic non-profit organizations on the Pier and in Chicago.
As a female leader, what has been the most significant barrier in your career?
JF: I have routinely encountered people who have questioned or challenged my expertise, whether because I'm a woman or because my professional expertise is in the area of children's museums and early childhood—fields traditionally dominated by women. That said, I have been diligent in cultivating a community of encouraging colleagues and mentors—both women and men—who have consistently supported my pursuit of higher levels of leadership. In turn, I try to support and lift up women in their pursuit of professional and personal goals, especially younger, BIPOC female colleagues.
BG: My gender has never stood in the way of my passion. When I first set out to start a Shakespeare theater company in Chicago, I was an actor and director still early in my career—and much of the day-to-day management of a company was uncharted territory for me. It was really my early limited knowledge that was a barrier. What I didn’t have in know-how I made up for in enthusiasm—and I made a point to surround myself with artists, community partners, business leaders and advocates who truly cared about our artistic vision. It was the commitment of that community of supporters who made Chicago Shakespeare what it is today.
MKG: From my experience, it's all about perspective. I've never viewed "barriers" as obstacles, rather I consider challenges as opportunities for learning and growth. As I reflect on the early days of my career, though I didn't realize it at the time, I was often the only woman in the room or at the table. I brought the unique perspective of a woman, a young professional, eventually as a mother and a community leader to the table, and that was encouraged and supported. I earned my seat. My talent, drive and determination were recognized and valued and laid the foundation for my professional success. Despite my fortunate and privileged career path, I recognize that my experience is not typical for many women, especially those of color. So many women have not had supportive and inclusive cultures in which they have access to nurturing mentors, colleagues and leaders to lean on, and have had to overcome so many obstacles to be successful. I urge them to continue making their voices heard and their value known. Companies of all shapes and sizes need empowered women of all backgrounds—including at the board and executive leadership level—so that they can be successful and impactful. Whatever role I can play as an ally and advocate to empower any woman to achieve her potential is part of my commitment to help shape the next generation of future women leaders.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shed an even brighter light on gender disparities across industries with women accounting for more job losses than men. How can we all work to achieve a more equitable future as we reemerge from the pandemic?
JF: Gender equity is critical for so many reasons and the pay gap ranks at the top of the list. Women wouldn't be leaving the workforce in such great numbers if they didn't bear the double burdens of lower salaries and an imbalanced workload at home related to child-rearing and housework. As an organization focused on children, Chicago Children's Museum aims to support all parents and caregivers of all genders, and in families of all kinds, in the pursuit of equitable parenting. We try to do so without judgment or stereotypes of what moms or dads can or can't do. We know that loving, teaching, and caring for children is among the most important jobs, while also being among the hardest. We're here to support parents, too, not just children.
BG: As theater-makers, we have always been charged with engaging honestly in conversations about our humanity AND our inhumanity—and the COVID-19 pandemic has made it all too clear that these disparities are embedded deeply in the very structures of our society. In order to ensure a more inclusive world, we must bridge those conversations with actions in demanding a more equitable future for women, particularly for women of color and trans women. Every group of decision-makers should reflect the multitude of identities, strengths, and viewpoints in our city and our world. And we must champion the next generation of leaders, so that we can continue to build a better future together.
MKG: Organizations are going to have to work smarter and more efficiently. Women, in particular, have an incredible opportunity to demonstrate grit post pandemic by stepping up, expanding their capabilities and delving into areas of expertise that previously haven't been under their purview. During pandemic, organizations have been forced to make tough decisions and move toward combining roles and streamlining operations for greater effectiveness. With the spotlight so focused on women, this is a pivotal time for women in the workplace to demonstrate added value. In addition, as we now work towards economic recovery and reemployment, organizations will need to be mindful of DEI hiring practices to ensure that women are given opportunities to return to work. Further, there has been such a focus on how women in the workplace have been managing not only the intensity of pandemic workloads, but balancing their children's remote learning and/or broader family social isolation/wellbeing. Let's be sure to step up within our organizations to support women in these unique challenges and maximize our innate ability to manage opportunities, challenges and crises with love, care and empathy at the foundation for the organization, its people and the community.
What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?
JF: Be yourself, that's when you will do your best work. Embrace your values and hold on tightly; always listen to your gut—your integrity is worth protecting.
BG: My advice to leaders is the same that I give to actors in the rehearsal room as a director: lead with listening. You must not only hear what your team is saying, but also open yourself to be changed by it. Develop an insatiable appetite for curiosity to ask questions—and then be comfortable in the silence that comes with undistracted listening to the response. More often than not, the answers are often already in front of you if you are patient enough to receive them. A collaborative culture allows new ideas to be born and beloved friendships to be made.
MKG: Live in empowerment and seize moments. Make it happen versus waiting for others to give you permission. Step up. Lean in. Help others and be humble. It may sound cliché, but always be a leader in all situations, living in the role of the next job ahead, but never allow the most menial job to be below you. With organizations having to work smarter and more efficiently post pandemic, the next generation of female leaders will have the opportunity (and the need) to broaden their talent base and be agile. They will need to be able to take on more, cross skill sets and live in making impact. Those who adapt to that quickly will excel.