Sitka women discuss leading without losing themselves

Mid-discussion at Harrigan Centennial Hall in May 2019. (Photo by Angie Hilsman/KTOO)

Mid-discussion at Harrigan Centennial Hall in May 2019. (Photo by Angie Hilsman/KTOO)

An intergenerational crowd of men and women alike turned out at Harrigan Centennial Hall in Sitka this week. It wasn’t a government meeting or policy proceeding: Instead, the audience heard all about female leadership. The University of Alaska Southeast organized a panel discussion to dive into the challenges and opportunities of running the show as a woman.

Sarah Stanley, associate professor of English at University of Alaska, Fairbanks moderated the panel, which welcomed five local women: KCAW general manager Becky Meiers, Dani Snyder, captain at the Sitka Fire Department, Tracy Sylvester of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, Trish White, owner of White’s Inc. pharmacy and Alana Peterson, the executive director of Spruce Root.

The panelists dished out insight on how to lead well in industries where men tend to run the show like fishing, firefighting, and even public radio. After years of work to get where they are today, the women strive to lead well without resorting to a macho, “just one of the boys” style of leadership.

To try to fit in, you’ll try to be one of the guys,” Snyder said. “And then you’ll hit a point that that will no longer feel good. I was just trying to be someone that wasn’t me. It wasn’t not me, but it wasn’t all of me.”

Snyder has learned to be tough and firm in an industry where sexism isn’t exactly uncommon. She encounters plenty of aggressive men and women. To disarm aggressive, or ill-considered questions, like when someone on her crew told her she was “pretty good at this for a girl,” Snyder asks direct questions.

“I just said what exactly do you mean by that, because that sounds really silly.” That’s a strategy that KCAW’s Meiers has also used to call people out or set them straight. If someone says something sexist or offensive, she responds by asking them what they actually mean, too.

“Be assertive,” Meiers said. “Not mean, but clear.”

But beyond conflict-resolution, part of developing a unique approach to leadership as women means pushing back against how jobs have always been done. For Snyder, that has meant rethinking how she teaches the people on her team. “I teach things the way I want to teach them, the way I’d want to be taught, not necessarily the way I learned it,” she said.

For her part, Tracy Sylvester of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association would like to see more emphasis on collaboration and less competition. When she first got into commercial fishing, the women who were already in the industry didn’t always help open doors for her. They took on a more macho, aggressive attitude – one that Sylvester would like to see change. That starts with honest and open conversations.

“It’s good to talk to one another about that kind of stuff,” she said.

Part of creating a more collaborative environment means breaking down expectations and assumptions about gender roles. “Being strong doesn’t necessarily need to be a masculine identifier,” Meiers said. “But also emotional intelligence shouldn’t be equated with femininity.” The best leaders cultivate and rely on both.

Sometimes, that means being vulnerable. For Snyder, the fire captain, she’s learned not to hide from the fact that life does occasionally get in the way. “I try to be honest about what’s going on in my life,” she said. “I have kids. I get upset. And I can’t do everything.”

As for advice for the younger generations in the room? Sylvester from the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association said it best: “You can absolutely do it. Just take it one step at a time.”

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