Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D–Mich.) and Val Boreland, executive vice president of Content Strategy for NBC Universal, spoke on gender disparities in the workplace and the importance of mentorship in instilling confidence in young leaders at the Lean In Leadership Summit at the University of Michigan this past weekend.

Alongside the two keynote speakers, the summit featured an interactive panel as well as breakout discussion groups, where conversations revolved around various methods for students to assert themselves and gain valuable advice from mentors around them.

LSA junior Natalie Andrasko, co-director of Internal Operations for the conference, highlighted the importance of the summit in terms of fostering dialogue about gender in the workplace.

“I think there’s a big problem where there’s a lot of career resources on campus, but it’s hard to start a dialogue about issues facing women, especially at our age when we’re just entering the workforce,” Andrasko said. “Lean In is all about creating an open dialogue and trying to talk about issues that are sort of brushed under the rug, so we wanted to bring in influential speakers to talk about intersectionality and diversity.”

In her speech, Congresswoman Dingell emphasized how important it is for women to support one another, saying her network of women was an integral contributor to her own political successes politically. 

“Trust me when I tell you the importance of building relationships with your female peers,” Dingell said. “I’ve been where you are, I’ve been in your shoes. As women, we are all on the same team. We need to lift each other up, we need to celebrate one another’s successes.”

She also brought up the difficulties of balancing different aspects of her life, as childcare and personal relationships are still more of an issue for women in the workplace than they are for men. Dingell said while it was difficult having to respond to sexism, she did not allow it to discourage her and instead focused on proving those who doubted her wrong.

“You have a lot of the same problems that I did, which is how to get the door open,” Dingell said. “And while I don’t think it is said in as blunt a way as it was in my time — ‘once you get pregnant, leave the workforce’ — I still think there is a built in concern about how women are going to balance having families and we have to deal with that.”

Boreland spoke about similar topics, but also emphasized women should worry less about knowing everything or being too abrasive and should instead focus on themselves and how to become as successful as they want. She talked about her journey and all the different experiences that led her to her current position and highlighted certain mentors who played key roles in that journey.

“I think us not taking risks is fear,” Boreland said. “We get too wrapped up in fear, and I always say you shouldn’t let opportunities get away from you because lost opportunities are going to be your biggest regrets in life. … I think the right answer is always take the risk. Like what is the worst-case scenario, I always say to myself, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ If that scenario is not that bad, then move forward.”

LSA sophomore Arushi Mahajan, the other co-director of Internal Operations, said the Lean In Summit Organizers felt it was really important that students learn how to build peer networks and benefit from the wide variety of professors and alumni who can serve as mentors on campus.

“It’s super important to constantly keep this open conversation, and finding your peers and mentors is an incredible asset that the University of Michigan has,” Mahajan said. “We really want to shift away from women viewing other women as competition and focus more on creating a network and learning how to best support each other both in our careers and our personal lives.”

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