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Lessons on Leadership: A View From the Shattered Ceiling

Updated: May 22, 2023

I turn twenty this year. A decade many regard as one of their best, one of little wealth but of boundless freedom. The freedom to spend time with friends, to travel without restrictions, to make ‘mac and cheese in a waffle maker because you can–more importantly, to choose a career. Though my parents claim I “always wanted to be a singer!” (as the options for eight-year-old girls are between that and ballerina), my passion for writing was one I knew would carry through to my adult years. We could chalk it up to the leadership convention I attended in fourth grade (doubt it), or it could be my successful student president campaign the following year (double doubt it). Regardless of what kindled the spark, the desire to lead and unite communities using my writing as a segue was ignited at an early age and followed me throughout the rest of my schooling, is still following me today.

By the time I got to college I was eager to find a job that paid over minimum wage, and with that I was whisked away into the world of ushering. It’s definitely not for everyone; being shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of people at twelve in the morning isn’t the most relaxing of tasks, and the smell of popcorn butter definitely gets old. But for all of its quirks, working as an usher was one of the best decisions I could have made. As a music-lover, getting paid to attend concerts is a pretty great gig. The flexibility allowed me to work at two different venues, one a stadium-styled arena and the other a more regal concert hall. And double the work? Double the pay. The majority was put towards school payments and my metro card. Eventually though, I saved enough of what I’ve affectionately coined “big girl money” to use on–obviously–big girl things. My first chunk of spending money went to a Juicy Couture tracksuit that fulfilled all my 2000’s kid dreams. It was awesome. It was even better when I got promoted to supervisor.

It’s a pretty standard achievement, and one that can be difficult to feel proud of when comparison is all too tempting. For everyone being around the same age, it sure seems as though no two of my peers are at the same stage of life. Still, a promotion was an admission of hard work, tangible proof that between a full course load and my newly-blooming writing career, I was doing something right.

Nothing had changed but my title and the color of my nametag, yet I was fully expecting to walk inside the theater and be hit with a sense of victory.

Power or fulfillment or at least some semblance of satisfaction. The doors open, my feet hit the carpet, and I was greeted with…resistance?

For the first time in my life it was made overwhelmingly clear I was the youngest individual in the room, not by one or two years but ten or twenty. Not only that, but I was a young female student surrounded by a substantial amount of male retirees, ones who had already lived out their careers and gained the respective gratification. My lack of experience was abundantly obvious, and though no one made any explicit comments, I couldn’t help but feel self-conscious. Of course, my coworkers and superiors were supportive to the nth degree–but when one insisted they had never seen me before when I had been working there for over a year, or when I was constantly drilled with questions about emergency protocol because they knew and just wanted to “double-check” that I did, it felt as though I had only my own inadequacy to blame.

Leadership is hard enough without extenuating circumstances, but as a young woman just getting her foot in the door it can feel even more discouraging. Experience is a key component when climbing the corporate ladder, but even receiving the opportunity to get experience is a feat in itself. How do people do it? How do women do it? I wanted to learn more about women who have accomplished what I, alongside thousands more of young aspiring leaders, so desperately crave.

Generations of overcoming obstacles, of paving the way, and ultimately, of leaving a legacy.

I spoke to three leaders to see how barriers were conquered in the past in order to advise those jumping hurdles in the future. And the future is now: we no longer have time to waste in today’s dire climate. Problems continuously put on hold are reaching a breaking point, and it’s up to Generation Z to remedy them. Whether you’re already leading or still rising through the ranks, I hope you can find guidance from their expertise.

Woman sitting on the floor reaching out to sunflowers

One of the women I had the pleasure of speaking with was Michelle L. Ashcraft, whose leadership journey began as an undergraduate student at Purdue University. Her involvement in organizations including Purdue’s Student Orientation Committee and Purdue Opportunity Awards (now Purdue Promise) encouraged Michelle to work in higher education student affairs, and she went on to occupy positions such as Assistant Director of New Student & Parent Programs at the University of Kentucky before returning to Purdue in 2012 and serving as the Director of Purdue Promise alongside ScholarCorps’ Site Supervisor.

Michelle highlights the lack of female role models in the workplace, noting how even industries dominated by women such as teaching and student affairs often feature men in the top positions.

“I have more than once been told by my male superiors that I should change because I may be perceived differently as a young woman,” she shares.

When she confronted a former supervisor about mistreatment she had received, he responded with “well, sexism, ageism, and positionalism exist, and you just have to understand that.”—not the words someone wants to hear when facing abuse and going to a supervisor for guidance.

This detail proves why representation is so integral to success, especially in marginalized groups. My next interviewee, Mariann Taylor, elaborates on the significance of women inhabiting leadership roles and what she calls “leading by example.” “No matter your level, or what you do, someone is watching you and looking to you as their example, just as we look to others we admire as our examples,” Mariann says. Her first job was in middle school working for her mother’s catering and baking business, where she “grew up with that example and her work ethic.” Mariann notes, “20 years ago there weren't as many women in leadership roles, so this is still new territory.” She now has daughters of her own in leadership, and is a firm believer that watching her “work hard, set an ethical standard, and adhere to a no excuses but honest apologies mindset” gave them a standard to strive for that contributed to their accomplishments, just as her mother’s did to her.

Today, Mariann works for one of the largest optical retailer organizations in the country. She started at an entry level position 23 years ago and has since climbed to the top of the company, currently holding the Director of Clinical Administration role.

During her time as a leader, she’s learned a lot about herself and her personal leadership style, and was able to raise a thought-provoking idea on the relationship between one’s feelings and how they choose to lead.

Gender stereotypes don’t stop at the head of the table; the idea that women are prone to “leading with their hearts rather than their heads” might not seem like the most harmful standard, but it leaves an excess of room for subtle sexism that often goes unchecked. I definitely think of myself as a more logic-focused individual, thus I’m prone to questioning pre-existing standards when I feel something could be done more efficiently. It frustrates me to no end when I’m asked if I’m on my period where a man would be praised for his assertiveness–it’s demeaning, it’s embarrassing, and it’s just plain wrong.

However, just because the label is wrong for me doesn’t mean it is for others, as Mariann calls “the emotional aspect of being a woman” one of her best attributes when it comes to leading. She makes a point–my first instinct is to be insulted when labeled with the term “emotional”, but why is that bad thing?

Empathy and sincerity and compassion are beautiful qualities to embody, essential qualities for a leader to model.

“I can relate on many different levels with my team…and may have insight that is different than that of a man,” Mariann shares.

The last person I spoke with is Amanda Medlen, a leader at Indianapolis’ IDO Incorporated who has similar views on integrating empathy into leadership. “I feel like I’m a highly sensing-feeling-type person…a lot of it comes down to trust and communication,” says Amanda. She’s been told she was “too nice” in the past, but has learned over the course of her leadership journey how to be “stronger with [her] convictions” and still maintain an emotional connection with her team. Amanda defines her office culture as one centered around “connectedness” where each associate works under the assumption they are all connected to “each other, the company, their families, and ultimately, their communities.” Amanda asserts the fact that “we need those connections and relationships to others…we can do much more together.”

Woman resting her arm on a ladder covered in sunflowers

All three of these women offer profound and thoughtful insight into the world of female leadership, and each of their unique perspectives aid in painting a picture–one detailing prior successes as well as guidance for those to come. As parting words of wisdom, there are three pieces of advice they offer young women seeking out leadership roles. Mariann says “don’t focus on being a leader, rather allow opportunities to come to you by putting time into your relationships and work to build others up…” Michelle cites education and “lifelong-learning practices” as an integral part of her personal triumphs. “I believe that every leader should never stop striving for both cultural humility and cultural competency,” she expresses. Michelle encourages young leaders to continue “exploring [their] identities, fostering conversations, and being open to changing…beliefs and values” as you learn along the way. As for Amanda, she stresses the positive impact from strengthening connections and not trying to tackle everything on your own. “Be open and curious, ask questions, and find that network of people that fuel you, not drain you,” she adds.


Written by Isabella Lowery featuring interviews with Michelle L. Ashcraft, Amanda Medlin, and Mariann Taylor. Amanda Medlin photographed by Abhishika Masih.

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