Kate C. Farrar, vice president of AAUW Campus Leadership Programs, manages programs that ensure college women assume leadership roles and acquire the skills they need to succeed in their academic, professional, and personal lives. Prior to assuming her current position, Kate was the associate director of National Programs and Policy at Wider Opportunities for Women. She was a 2011 WIN Young Woman of Achievement awardee, member of the Center for Progressive Leadership’s 2011 Executive Fellowship, and serves as president of the Women under 40 Political Action Committee (WUFPAC) board.
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) is the nation’s leading voice promoting equity and education for women and girls. Since its founding in 1881, AAUW members have examined and taken positions on the fundamental issues of the day — educational, social, economic, and political.
Tell us about your journey to where you are today.
Long before Take Your Daughter to Work Day was official, I went to work with my mom, who is a nurse practitioner. Starting when I was 5, I would join my mom at the Staywell Health Clinic in Waterbury, Connecticut, where she served low-income women and families. Some days I wanted to grow up to be the pediatrician, some days the clinic’s office manager. At Staywell I learned to see that each patient, regardless of income, should receive comprehensive and respectful health care treatment.
While interning in the state legislature during college, I witnessed what a difference women at the table could make for families in my state. I saw that it was the women legislators leading the charge for health care, for basic child nutrition. They were the ones speaking out and making policy change for the women I’d met at work with my mom, but there were so few of them in the legislature. I soon started to understand that diverse opinions and experiences were how to reach the best decisions.
I wanted to change what I saw as an imbalance in power. That at the tables of business, media, government, military, and on and on, there were not enough women leaders. More women are needed to more accurately represent our population but also to bring different and new perspectives to priorities and decision making.
This is why today I work to build confidence and skills in college women to help them to break through the gender leadership gap.
We need more women in this next generation to see themselves at the decision-making table and to break through the barriers to leadership. At AAUW we are empowering and training thousands of women every year to take on leadership roles on their campus and in their communities. I get to use my beliefs and passions to support these women to change the world and build their own leadership story.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I see that I had the privilege of having two supportive parents, a chance at a college education, along with mentors and cheerleaders, which all helped lead me to where I am today. But also the leader I am today is due to lots of hard work and self-reflection. In many cases I’ve also been witness to leaders I want to emulate and the leadership qualities I want to avoid. My first boss out of college was an intellectual property lawyer in London. I was his administrative assistant for four months and suffered through his micromanagement style during which he often treated me as incompetent and immature. On the other hand, in my next boss, a lobbyist for nonprofits, I was a trusted member of the team and thrown into new tasks to learn how to problem solve and negotiate on my own. The juxtaposition of these supervisors an taught me what a difference having a leader that you admire can make in your effectiveness, growth and success in your work but also your happiness.
How have you learned from these challenges and successes?
I think we learn a lot more from the challenges than from the successes. We tend to analyze the challenges way more than we savor the successes. When you are faced with a challenge, personal or professional, I think the only way to get through it is to be easier on ourselves and lean back on the values and personal mission that guides us. For instance, when I was unemployed for months after graduate school, I felt lost. I didn’t know which direction to go professionally and felt like I needed to choose the “right” job since it would set the course for my career. In the end, I was being way too hard on myself to find that perfect opportunity. I took a risk and traveled to Wisconsin for three months as a field organizer for the 2004 presidential campaign. This risk led me to settle in Washington, D.C. and pursue my current career. Once I let go of the idea of that ideal job, I could be open to doing something I’d never done such as joining a campaign and fighting for a candidate who shared my values.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at AAUW?
Over the past six years at AAUW, I’ve been an intraprenuer. Intraprenuer is the concept that you are acting as an entrepreneur in an already established larger organization. I’ve led the growth of our Campus Leadership Programs with five programs from two staff to 10 and from fewer than 300 college/university partner members to more than 800 and thousands of AAUW student affiliate members.
There are two key highlights that are special to me, and they are building the National Conference for College Women Student Leaders (NCCWSL) and founding and growing Elect Her. NCCWSL is the only conference of its kind for college women and is a transformative event that will welcome nearly 1,000 college women in 2014. This conference is special to me because when I was in college, I attended and it opened my world to the opportunities beyond my state school experience. Getting to expand the attendance of the conference with our collaborator NASPA has been very fulfilling. At each conference I get to see these college women say how this event changed their life in the same way it changed mine over 12 years ago.
Elect Her, a program developed in collaboration with Running Start, is the only program in the country that trains college women to run for student government and political office. We started a pilot of this program with just three campuses and now reach 50 campuses and more than 1,000 college women. The attendees gain the confidence and skills to run for office in college, and we fully expect many of them to pursue political office at a young age and build the pipeline of women in office.
I would say that there are daily challenges. Often we underestimate the maneuvering that goes along with leading a team, being a kind coworker, seeking excellence, and being an effective communicator. These things require a conscious effort every day, and some days are realistically easier than others. To stay on track I try to keep an open mind and a problem-solving mindset. None of the work, especially in a large and long standing organization such as AAUW is ever done on your own. You must rely on others in the team and external collaborators to accomplish your goals. You need to be open to a lot of opinions, expertise, and work styles. And, there is always going to be something that goes wrong or fails. Perfection is a myth. I try to see challenges from a mindset of a problem-solver in order to get through them and move forward.
How is AAUW making a difference in the lives of women across the US?
AAUW builds a better future for women and girls in the U.S. and around the world. Building an incredible legacy, AAUW has been empowering women as individuals and as a community since 1881. For more than 130 years, we have worked together as a national grassroots organization to improve the lives of millions of women and their families. We do it all through research, advocacy, education, philanthropy, and leadership development. We analyze gender equity issues and challenge sex discrimination in education and the workplace. We shape the lives of the next generation of women leaders. We level the playing field for girls and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. We provide educational and lifelong learning opportunities for women and we deliver leadership development opportunities to AAUW members. Plus, our members find lifelong friends and mentors from their engagement in AAUW. Our real strength lies in our community of over 170,000 members and supporters, 1,000 branches, and more than 800 college/university partner members across the country.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
There is no such thing as work-life balance. For everyone, it is your life and how work is integrated into it. For me, what I do for work is a large part of my identity, so I need to hold it in check to make sure I’m making time for who I am beyond my work.
Really, the concept of work-life balance is such a luxury. Most women in our world don’t think about work-life balance. Women in every country are often just trying to survive and support their families day-to-day.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think the biggest issue for women in the workplace is that our workplaces have not kept up with what our 21st century society wants and needs to be innovative, productive, and sustainable. Due to outdated workplace cultures and policies, women often feel unsupported and underdeveloped as employees and leaders, not to mention unequal pay. If our workplaces actually were held accountable for pay practices, our economy, families, and women would benefit in leaps and bounds.
What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In book and movement?
I greatly appreciate Sheryl Sandberg’s choice to use her platform to make the gender leadership gap a worldwide discussion. I hope Lean In helps start the conversation among women and men about what we can do as individuals, communities, and across systems to change the inequities. Sheryl is one person, and it is going to take each and every one of us to see the value of women’s leadership and make personal and systemic change.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship can be an often misunderstood concept, but I equate it to a range of relationships I’ve had in which I learned from someone else. That person can be more senior than me or younger than me or a peer. There is no doubt that I’m where I am professionally and personally due to a strong support network and a network that has pushed me. I think the biggest difference that mentors can make is to help you envision the life you can’t even imagine for yourself.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I greatly admire women who are innovators and risk takers. Women I associate with these attributes are social entrepreneurs such as Majora Carter, an environmental justice pioneer, and public servants such as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand whose first political race was her win for Congress at the age of 40.
I also greatly admire women who are living life to the fullest when our society expects them to slow down. Rita Moreno is one of those women. At 82 she lives life with joy, humor, and passion. Not only does she serve as an incredible role model in being the only Hispanic to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony (!) but she still dances every day.
What are your hopes for the future of AAUW?
My hope for the future of AAUW is that we go out of business because our work is done.
But in the meantime, my hopes are that we are able to build a stronger and sustainable intergenerational community of women and girls who see the power of working together to break through the remaining barriers to equity.
What is one word that sums up where you have got to today?