Dr. Sonja Santelises recalled practicing for a high school debate with her father and that the particularly challenging argument she was trying to build wasn’t working. Overwhelmed, Santelises teared up a bit. How her father responded has stuck the Baltimore City Schools CEO since then.
“He said, ‘You can cry with me, but as a woman, and as a woman of color, you can’t do that (in front of others),’” Santelises said.
As an educational leader, Santelises said she appreciates the “political and social framing” her father provided at that moment, but in many ways she wishes what he had said wasn’t true.
Santelises made these remarks during a panel discussion at WOW — Women of the World Baltimore, a two-day conference and festival at Notre Dame of Maryland University that celebrated women leaders. In a panel discussion, “Leading Ladies of Baltimore: Hands on the Levers of Power,” Santelises shared a stage with Dr. Redonda Miller, the first woman president of Johns Hopkins Hospital, Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore City Heath Commissioner, and Col. Melissa Hyatt, chief of the Baltimore City Police Department’s neighborhood patrol division.
Wen, who has become nationally known for tackling urban poverty and violence as community health issues, began her career as an emergency room physician. When paramedics arrived with patients, she frequently had to identify herself as “the one in charge,” she recalled, because they were always looking for “the tall white man.”
To counter that, Wen said she has stuck even more closely to her goals and let them define her.
“Do we want to be defined by what every person might think about us?” Wen asked the audience, who responded with applause.
Her remarks underscored many of the themes during the hour-long panel that attracted a mostly female audience of a wide age range. The four leaders talked about how they do their jobs differently than men, the need for mentoring younger women to be leaders and how they focus on the job and not on their gender.
Hyatt is from a police family – her father was a Baltimore cop as well – and she knew from the time she was a small child that she wanted to be part of the police force’s SWAT team. When Hyatt was 10 years into the job, her mother shared with her a video clip from the evening news that showed the SWAT team responding to an emergency. A line of officers walked across the screen – all 6-foot-tall men, except for Hyatt.
“That was the first time in my life when I thought, ‘Wow, I am really different than these guys,’” said Hyatt, who added that she had always strived to meet or exceed the physical requirements for men on the force and not the lesser requirements for women.
She acknowledged experiencing a lot of sexism on the job, which bothered her a lot as a younger officer. Now, she doesn’t react. She is more focused on mentoring younger women in the department and encouraging them to be leaders, she said.
Miller agreed about the need to mentor, adding that when it comes to the confidence a leader needs, women sometimes are their own worst enemies. When a job comes open, women look at the list of 10 requirements and think, ‘I only have seven,’ and then they don’t apply, she said.
“I think men approach this differently. They read 10 things and they think, ‘I have three, I’m good,’” said Miller, whose comments were greeted with laughter and cheers.
Today’s women leaders must instill this same confidence in younger women, Miller said.
“We must tell your young women to put their names in the hat and that they can do it,” she said.