Women in Leadership: A conversation with Eurasia Foundation President Lisa Coll

October 5, 2020

“It is important to show younger generations of women and girls that they can do anything they set their minds to and to show them that stereotypes should not hold them back,” says Eurasia Foundation President Lisa Coll. EF Communications Officer Julia McLean interviewed Ms. Coll on the importance of gender diversity in leadership, the barriers she has faced in her own career, and more.

JULIA MCLEAN, HOST: Why is it important for women to hold leadership positions in our institutions?

LISA COLL: I think there are a number of reasons why this is important. First, why not women in leadership positions? Some studies show that the non-profit sector is made up of over 75 percent women and an industry that is made up of that many women should have women in decision making positions. Women representing the industry, women leading the institutions. Second, I think speaking very generally, women are skilled negotiators and skilled listeners. And listening I think in particular is a very important quality in good leadership. It helps colleagues feel seen. It allows the leader to collect different perspectives and data points on making decisions. And I also think it’s important to show younger generations of women and girls that they can do anything they set their minds to and to show them that stereotypes should not hold them back.

MCLEAN: What are from your perspective the biggest challenges for women in or aspiring toward leadership roles?

COLL: Unfortunately, the stereotypes around gender are still very prevalent in the U.S. And in most cases I think the pathway to leadership for a woman is filled with many obstacles. Concerns about divided priorities if the woman has children. And I think on the flipside, also sometimes family responsibilities do not leave time for leadership responsibilities. I think sometimes there is harassment, lack of role models. There’s also a tendency to not advocate for oneself, to ask for promotions or raises. So, I think we just need to take a little more deliberate look at the issue of women in leadership positions and find some solutions to some of the more practical problems.

MCLEAN: How did you overcome gender-related roadblocks in your own career?

COLL: Well, I’ve been lucky to have mentors and supervisors along the way–both women and men–who both pushed me professionally and also gave me opportunities to grow. I’ve been with Eurasia Foundation for most of my career and part of the reason I stayed for so long is that I never felt a barrier to professional growth because of my gender or because of the fact that I have children at home to care for. It is a very supportive environment for working parents. I also have a partner in my husband who is deeply supportive of my career and also shares the household responsibilities, including putting dinner on the table every night.

MCLEAN: How do you think about your own daughters’ futures and what do you encourage in them?

COLL: I think I want from my girls what all parents want for their kids. I want them to find their own way and to find what makes them happy. I expect them to work hard at anything they do and I try to help them recognize their relative privilege simply due to the color of their skin and their socioeconomic backgrounds. I expect them to lift others up when they see the opportunity to do so. But beyond that, I try hard not to push them in any particular direction. They need to find what gets them excited and push themselves in that direction.

MCLEAN: What would you say was the best piece of advice given to you that has helped you get to where you are?

COLL: My dad said something repeatedly to me when I was growing up. He said never rely on someone else for your own happiness. We build relationships, hopefully healthy ones, with people who we want to walk through life with. Sometimes I think people look to partners or other people in their lives to make themselves happy, and no one can make you happy except for yourself. The second thing I also learned from my parents, and I don’t know if this was ever a piece of advice or just shown to me through example, is to always keep your word and do what you say you’re going to do. This is important in personal relationships but also, I think, in the workplace. It builds trust and accountability, which is the foundation for all healthy relationships whether professional or personal.