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One Woman's Lifetime of Leadership Helps Create Leaders for Life

Kitty KolbertFor decades, the knowledge, skills, and experiences gained at Barnard have helped young women to become leaders in their fields, their governments, and their communities. Now Barnard has an institutionalized focus to achieve these goals. Taking its name from the Greek goddess of wisdom, The Athena Center for Leadership Studies offers a plan of action that comprises campus visits by notable leaders and scholars within a format of distinguished lectures and panels; implementation of two student programs, Athena Scholars and the Athena Summer Fellowship; the Athena Leadership Lab, which will expand the program to women of all ages and skill sets; and cooperative research with other academic institutions and women’s organizations committed to women’s advancement.

Kathryn Kolbert, currently professor of leadership studies at the College, has been named the Center’s first director. A public-interest attorney specializing in women’s rights for most of her career, Kolbert has maintained a lifelong commitment to promoting the status of women; the Center’s goals mirror those she has worked to achieve throughout her career. “I love the challenge and energy that comes with creating a new program,” says Kolbert. “Most important, I was impressed with President Spar’s vision for the Athena Center, the camaraderie at Barnard, and the opportunity to work with the College’s wonderful students and faculty.”

For Kolbert, the issue of women and leadership is pressing: “Many of the problems we face in society are intractable and extraordinarily complex. If we are to create a more compassionate and just society we need the ideas, resources, and energies of all our citizens ... women and men working together for a better world.” Her own achievements in advocacy, legal, political, and journalistic fields demonstrate her dedication to the issue. Graduating cum laude from law school at Temple University, Kolbert soon joined Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and then the Women’s Law Project where she represented Pennsylvania reproductive- health providers. After arguing her first abortion case before the United States Supreme Court in 1985, she joined the national American Civil Liberties Union as the state coordinating counsel of the group’s Reproductive Freedom Project in New York. Kolbert worked with women’s groups across the country to defeat state laws that restricted such freedoms. She found herself back at the Supreme Court in 1992 arguing the landmark case of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, which has been credited with upholding Roe v. Wade. In her last years as a practicing attorney, she co-founded the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, and directed its domestic litigation and public policy programs.

Still working within a legal framework, she then shifted her approach. As Kolbert tells it, “In 1998, I returned to Philadelphia and became a journalist, which was a great new challenge. I created a program on law and American life at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.” That work involved serving as executive producer of Justice Talking, an award-winning radio program that was distributed by National Public Radio, and directing an educational Web site called JusticeLearning.org, which received a Webby Award in 2006.

Her most recent accomplishments involve another agenda that is national in scope. “I entered the world of politics in Washington, D.C., as the president and chief executive officer of People for the American Way (PFAW) and People for the American Way Foundation, two of the nation’s premier civil rights organizations.” Under Kolbert’s leadership, PFAW was cited by the weekly magazine National Journal as the most successful advocacy group of the 2008 election cycle. For the foundation, Kolbert managed successful leadership development programs with college students such as Young People For and worked with young politicians through the Young Elected Officials Network. She also lent her expertise to PFAW’s African American Ministers in Action, which supports progressive activism in African-American congregations and communities.

Throughout her career, Kolbert has educated students at such institutions as the University of Pennsylvania on constitutional and women’s rights issues in the national media, all of which has given her the knowledge and skills to train future leaders. Kolbert plans to involve the Center in groundbreaking research. It is her hope to work collaboratively with other colleges and universities to promote women’s leadership by identifying a broad research agenda. After identifying an agenda, she plans to enlist the scholarship of Barnard faculty and academics across the country to find answers. By inviting scholarship from a variety of sources to inform the Center’s efforts, Kolbert stresses an interdisciplinary approach, one not guided by a specific theory. She finds the most interesting work on leadership is coming from very diverse places, including the nation’s nonprofit organizations, the military, psychology and brain researchers, and women entrepreneurs.

While Kolbert prefers not to characterize leadership solely along gender lines, she acknowledges that women’s varied experiences contribute to different leadership styles and strengths. “For example,” she states, “women tend to be more collaborative than men ... often more willing to reach out and work across differences, and are often more methodical, [and] less risk-averse....” But, she quickly adds, emphasis should be placed on the skills people bring to leadership roles regardless of gender. “Most importantly,” Kolbert says, “we need to break down the gender stereotypes that tend to hold women back from success.” Women’s titles are often prefaced by their gender, as in “women doctors” or “women writers.” This occurs, she believes, because “there is a presumption that leaders are white males and anyone who is different from the norm must be identified as such.” It’s her hope that as women become more visible in leadership roles, this practice will end, but she notes, “our language often lags behind.”

How will the Athena Center change things? First, it is essential to define the meaning of “leadership studies.” Kolbert admits that it is not a recognized discipline. “Rather,” she says, “it is an effort to recognize that many traditional liberal-arts disciplines teach us a lot about how organizations operate and how gender affects their operation.” With this knowledge, we can better comprehend what it means to lead and how we can increase the number of women whose ideas and experiences help make the world a better place. Gaining clarity in how women lead and exercise power, if and how gender affects leadership styles, and how to inspire young women to become strong, resilient leaders are key components of the Athena Center.

The Athena Center will bring together rigorous academic studies with experiential learning, both needed by students to excel. Hands-on learning is a main theme of Kolbert’s professional philosophy. Somewhat thoughtful, she says, “Like many lawyers, when I graduated from law school I knew very little about how to practice law. I had to learn by doing.” Along the way Kolbert discovered that her mistakes and failures taught her equally, if not more, than her successes. “I believe it is important for students to learn not only about theoretical aspects of leadership; [they need] to be leaders as well,” she affirms. “Experience with both success and failure can help them become more effective.”

To that end, young women can experiment with a host of learning opportunities while at Barnard. The Athena Scholars Program serves students who submit a declaration of intent to participate. They must complete specialized coursework, an internship with women leaders—important because it gives students hands-on experience—and an independent project that demonstrates leadership skills in several workshops as well as an off-campus setting. A minimum of 10 students who meet competitive criteria will be selected to take part in the Athena Summer Fellowship Program. Interested students will submit applications and participate in interviews conducted by program administrators. They will live on campus, participate in educational events, and be placed in paid internships. Kolbert explains further, “To be an Athena Scholar, students must complete five of the various courses offered, which examine all aspects of women’s leadership from the perspective of the liberal arts. Students might uncover how rhetoric affects a leader’s success, explore women’s leadership in history or literature, or examine the new movement of social entrepreneurs.” Students also study organizations, hierarchical and collective, decision-making, and power relationships in order to better understand the common and systemic barriers faced by women leaders. The Athena Center also draws on Barnard’s rich and diverse alumnae base. The internships work to pair students with appropriate mentors to learn about specific leadership styles and strategies.

Leadership skills can be acquired and used through different stages of life. One of Kolbert’s goals for the Athena Leadership Lab is to “create a place where women of different ages, experiences, and skill sets can share their experiences with each other.” The Lab is one of the Center’s major components and will offer workshops, seminars, and other educational programs designed to teach women at any age the practical elements of leadership. Older or more established women can share their knowledge and perspective with younger women who are emerging leaders. Participants will learn the art of negotiation, effective public speaking, financial literacy as well as political skills.

Although in the midst of a busy professional schedule, family plays a central role in Kolbert’s life. She and her partner, Joann, an award-winning gardener, have two children, Kate, 22, and Sam, 25, whom they see as much as possible. “We are avid sports fans,” she adds. “We regularly go to both Eagles and Phillies games and follow the Philadelphia teams.” Family roles can foster leadership skills, offering everyday experiences for growth. Kolbert observes: “Women take leadership roles in all aspects of their lives—in the workplace, as parents, as volunteers and coaches, etc. Women use leadership skills—how to make a presentation, run a meeting, balance the books, manage a project, whether they are leading a Fortune 500 company, running the PTA, or managing a community-based nonprofit organization.”

One of the most refreshing ideas Kolbert brings to the table is the idea that we all have the capacity to lead, and she espouses an inclusive theory of leadership: “As a general rule, I do not believe there are ‘born’ leaders. Rather, all persons have the capacity to become leaders if they recognize and take advantage of opportunities that they encounter and have the skills to make a difference.”

-by Stephanie Shestakow '98, photograph by Mark Mahaney

The Athena Center for Leadership Studies
Kathryn Kolbert, Director 103 Milbank Hall, Barnard College 212 854.1865 kkolbert@barnard.edu barnard.edu/athenacenter