The year 2020 has been one for the ages. Everyone has faced challenges as the year has ushered in changes—both good and bad—in nearly every aspect of our lives. We’re adapting to new normals while holding on to old traditions, all while looking for ways to make this world a little better and a bit more equal for everyone in it.

In my lifetime, there have been few who have championed the fight for equality—true equality for both women and men—the way Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG) had. And so, when news of her passing came during this already troubling year, it was just one more challenge to endure.

This past week during ASUG Best Practices: SAP for Industries, ASUG Women Connect held a virtual panel to discuss the topic of leading through a crisis. “As we all know, there has been no shortage of crisis in 2020—whether it’s COVID-19, national upheaval about social justice issues, or fires and hurricanes sweeping through states from coast to coast. We are all going through it,” said ASUG moderator Kelly Dowling. “And there has never been a more important time to lead and to do so with agency.”

Dowling spoke to Robyn Tweedy, VP and CIO of Nebraska Public Power District, Kristin Lampka, account executive for SAP EMEA at Intel, and Jackie Grunwald, CIO of Advansix. The four had a powerful conversation about equality in the workplace and what role each of us plays in advocating for it.

Living and Leading with Agency, Plus Shared Interest

RBG once asked a crowd at Amherst College, "What's the difference between a bookkeeper in New York's garment district and a supreme court justice?” She answered, “The difference is one generation.”

Born in 1933 in Brooklyn, New York, RBG persisted through challenges almost every step of her life and career to become the second woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Although she is most notorious for her dissenting opinions (some would say dissent is patriotic), her work championing equal rights for women and men alike is what set her apart. Starting with her time as an attorney for the ACLU in the 1970s arguing sex discrimination cases in front of the Supreme Court (one of which was a landmark case on behalf of a man), all the way through her time deciding cases as one of the nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, she made major strides in the fight for equality and opened doors for both next-generation girls and boys.

Dowling noted that it seems a bit ironic that we’re celebrating the work RBG has done in helping women’s rights in the workplace during a time now where this pandemic has led to more women either losing their jobs or stepping away from the workplace to fulfill the role of primary caregivers at home. Grunwald agreed, citing a quote from RBG: “Women will only have true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.”

The work we do needs to be done with shared interest because everyone will benefit from the outcome. “There aren’t any easy answers in terms of addressing what is happening because of this pandemic,” Grunwald added, “but what we need is to be flexible and to work together to find solutions.”

Keeping the Conversation Going Can Lead to Enduring Change

The panelists offered different perspectives as they discussed effective leadership, especially during trying times. “The model I’ve always lived by is to lead from where you are,” Lampka said. “Whether you sit in an individual contributor role, or if you’re just starting out, or if you’re at the top of the organization—there is always something for you to contribute.”

Some would say RBG led her life similarly. The victories she helped win in women’s rights didn’t always happen from inside the Supreme Court. And she certainly didn’t do it fighting alongside only those who agreed with her. In 2015, she told a crowd of young women, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” It is so critical to be vocal about inequalities, but it is also important to do it in a way that others can actually hear what you are saying.

During the panel, Dowling mentioned something she and I had discussed about a disconnect between what young girls learned at the dinner table 20 years ago (that they can do anything they set their minds to) versus the conversations their parents had in the workplace with colleagues (they weren’t having conversations at all). “I have three daughters,” Tweedy said. “And when we sat at the dinner table, we not only demonstrated to them how to be successful, but we talked to them about not giving up and not losing their voice. We told them to be consistent in who they are and never stop driving forward.” She added, “The way we keep this moving forward, especially as women leaders, is to listen to all the voices that are out there.”

The Baton Has Been Passed: Let’s Keep Moving

More than 10 years ago, RBG said, “Women belong in all the places decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.” As late as last year, she said, “We have made huge strides, but we have not reached nirvana.” Whether or not we will ever reach nirvana isn’t the goal, but rather that we get closer to it with each stride we make.

It doesn’t matter if you are ruling from the highest court in the U.S. or if you are typing away on a keyboard in your makeshift home office, your voice is necessary. It is what young girls and boys hear when they are making decisions about their lives and setting goals to be part of a greater society. It is also what your colleagues hear when they are making decisions about hiring and promoting within their organizations.

A few months ago, my colleague and I were naming women we wished would make guest appearances for an ASUG Women Connect event: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made the top five list. As we all move through the changes we are still learning to adapt to, we must also be mindful that we have some control over how it leads to the next lap of this race. “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time,” RBG once said. Let’s keep taking those steps, together.

Rest in power Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (March 15, 1933–Sept. 18, 2020)

Register for the next ASUG Women Connect Event: Finding Growth and Success in Small Businesses on Oct. 28, 1:30 – 2:10 pm CDT.

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