In establishing the new Women’s Leadership Initiative, trustee Kimberly (K.C.) Petillo- Décossard ’05 aimed high.
“We’re trying to normalize being a successful woman,” she said. “The way we do that is we have a group of awesome women who go out into the world prepared.”
Petillo-Décossard and her husband, Sakis Décossard, donated $175,000 to start the initiative. She hopes it will have two outcomes: targeted networking, to ensure women have opportunities; and preparation, to become leaders and also to manage issues that are likely to come up for women in the workplace.
“You can never prepare someone for every situation. But you can plant the seed— that these things can happen - and more importantly give women the courage and the confidence to respond in that moment,” Petillo-Décossard said. “If we hope to meaningfully change our current societal norms, we have to hold everyone, including ourselves, accountable. Sometimes that means saying, ‘That’s not appropriate, what you just said.’” That involves “giving women the language” to respond professionally to sexism, complaints about maternity leave, and the like, she added. She hopes executives will offer anecdotes and discuss them with students, and also provide ongoing mentorship.
She particularly wants to offer training on giving and receiving annual reviews, which influence how quickly women advance in their organizations. “What are the right ways to present yourself, your accomplishments, and your shortfalls? That’s a skill that gets developed over time, but I think we can move the process along. No one ever told me how to do a review—how to receive a review or how to give a review. And I think training on both sides is important.”
Among her advice: “It’s OK to talk yourself up—to say, ‘My writing really improved this year,’ or, ‘Give me your next challenge,’” she said.
Petillo-Décossard also encourages women not to accept criticism during a review if they genuinely feel it’s wrong. They need to practice to have the confidence to say, “I don’t agree with that piece of feedback and here’s why,” and she believes the practical training sessions the program will offer will help women develop those muscles.
She’s also hoping the initiative will improve women’s opportunities.
“I want networking and mentoring in the program. In a meaningful way, not just 100 people in a room randomly chatting,” Petillo-Décossard said. She wants to bring together smaller groups of women with common interests or focus areas so they can make deeper, lasting connections. “My goal for this program is to help prepare women to go out into the world and drive change.”