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Sally Helgesen: The World’s Expert on Women’s Leadership

You know you’re good at what you do when Forbes tells you you’re an expert. Journalist, author, and career coach Sally Helgesen has this accomplishment to her resume, and rightfully so. I got the chance to sit down and have a conversation with Helgesen, where she told me about her life, career, and experiences while working in women’s leadership.

    Helgesen started her journey in women’s leadership in 1988. “I had been working in corporate communications, and had a background as a journalist,” said Helgesen, “and what I saw with the companies I worked at is that they had no clue what women were capable of when it came to anything strategic or big picture.” After observing this firsthand, Helgesen started interviewing women that she knew exhibited leadership in various sectors, companies, and communities. The information she extracted from these interviews came to be The Female Advantage, Helgesen’s 1990 book that theorized that workplaces run by women put leaders at the center, rather than the top. “I saw that these women put themselves in the center of things, rather than at the top,” said Helgesen, “Their leadership resembled more of a web, rather than a hierarchy.” She also told me that these women valued direct communication, rather than hierarchical communications that go up and down a chain of commands. Helgesen also said that women’s experiences as mothers, daughters, and sisters contribute to their leadership style. 

    Helgesen also talked about what hinders women in their sectors, companies, and communities. Amongst those struggles, Helgesen emphasized the importance of making yourself heard. “It’s really important for women to learn early to get comfortable speaking up and using their voices,” Helgesen continued, “[Women] often have the idea that we have to wait to say something until we feel comfortable- we have to wait until we learn exactly what we want to say and how to say it.” Helgesen encouraged young women to not wait for the “perfect moment”; instead, learning to embrace vulnerability and discomfort.

Additionally, Helgesen touched upon something women of all ages struggle with: negative self talk. “Internal conversation is something you need to turn yourself out of, it’s just a form of self sabotage,” said Helgesen, “The other is being hyper aware of what is around you. We tend to over-notice, ‘Am I being boring, Did I offend someone?’” In her experiences, she has noticed that women tend to be hyper aware to a hellish extent, while men do not have this quality. A way to kick this habit? Helgesen stressed the importance of finding a mantra that speaks to you. One of Helgesen’s favorites is “Oh well”, and it has quickly become others’ favorite too. “I’ve had so many women write to me saying that they use it all the time,” Helgesen said, “By having a phrase that you repeat, it becomes habitual.”

Finally, Helgesen talked about her upcoming event through the University of Maine School of Business on Monday, April 12. Helgesen will conclude the “Inspired Innovators” series with her own lecture, “How Women Rise”- an homage to her 2018 book of the same title. “What I’m really trying to do is present information that is useful to both men and women but specifically relating to the conditions that help women reach their highest potential,” Helgesen said about the lecture, “I’m excited for the program because I’m also going to be using a technique called fish bowl coaching, which is highly interactive.” 

Even with all her accolades and successes, Helgesen still finds the time to speak to young women who aspire to lead. Apart from showing them how women rise, she also is a testament to what they’re capable of doing once they have.

My name is Paige McHatten and I am a U Maine Contributor for the University of Maine’s Her Campus chapter. I’m a current sophomore and am double majoring in English and journalism. In addition to writing, I enjoy reading, talking too much, thrift shopping, and hanging out with friends.
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