Laurie Burns McRobbie

Remarks at International Women’s Day Conference

Introduction and Welcome

Thank you, Sarah, it’s great to be here with you today, on such an important occasion for women of IU and therefore for the entire IU community. I really value the opportunity to be among so many students.

It’s one of the great joys of my role and of being on a college campus, getting to spend time with people who have their whole futures ahead of them. And this is especially true now, with the many challenges we have facing us.

While it’s always important to be aware of what’s going on and to exercise one’s responsibilities as well as one’s privileges as community members, it’s perhaps never been more important than it is right now.

Because we are educated and because we live in such a digitally-enabled and global world, we’re that much more conscious of the issues facing our planet, and communities and individuals all over the world. I applaud your commitment and your enthusiasm for working towards positive change.

We’re here to continue the celebration of international women’s day, which was marked globally a couple of weeks ago, to continue to celebrate women’s history month, and mostly, to celebrate the power of women coming together to make our campus – and our world – a safer place.

And we’re doing so today in a grand way, exceeding the registration limit for this inaugural conference – congratulations to all of the organizers and sponsors!

I should add that the Women’s Philanthropy Leadership Council is proud to be one of those sponsors.

It is truly an honor to be invited to give the closing remarks at a conference dedicated to the life of Yaolin Wang, so tragically taken from us too soon. Earlier today you heard from Yaolin’s father, who took the tuition remaining after her death to start an endowment, so that “she would never have to leave” IU Bloomington. The hope of the Wang family is that Yaolin’s story will help prevent similar tragedies from happening to another student or another family in our community. The endowment supports critical programs and services, like this conference, driven to keep IU students safe and secure on campus. I want to extend the deep gratitude of all of us at IU to the Yang family for their extraordinary generosity and commitment to IU. And I’d like us all to join in a moment of silence to remember Yaolin.

Thank you.

Today’s Topics, Tomorrow’s Impact

We heard from staff and students today on real issues facing women at IUB and far beyond campus borders.

Issues like financial wellness and the importance of being a financially literate woman.

Like what to do in instances of assault or violence, whether sexually or racially driven.

How to feel confident traveling as a solo woman in and outside of the United States.

You’ve discovered opportunities and action steps to build community engagement and positively impact social justice, oppression, and poverty.

You’ve learned strategies to address gender bias in the workplace.

You’ve gained an understanding of the burdens many women face in relation to reproductive health.

And I know you’ve all learned not only from our generous speakers today, but from each other. I’m confident that everyone will leave with new motivations and inspiration to go out and do good in the world.

In my remarks this afternoon, I want to touch on three themes that have been present all afternoon, and that have been particularly resonant for me throughout my life experiences.

Connectedness

The first theme is connectedness, and I could add to this, empathy. We are living in a highly connected time, looking around at all the devices we have at our disposal. We can talk to anyone anywhere, and at any time – I’m guessing some of you are sneaking a text or a tweet right now!

We’re reaping both the benefits and the downsides of this hyper-connectedness as well.

As much as our digital devices in classrooms, our homes, in our hands, on our wrists, keep us up to date on the latest news, events, and activities of friends and family, these microworlds that we live in digitally can also divide us from each other.

We can travel in our own digital bubbles and our own “tribes” of likeminded others much more easily, and thus lose the benefits of being in an environment like the one we have at IU that is so rich in diversity, of all kinds.

It takes conscious effort to reach out and interact with someone whose life experience or background is wholly different than yours, simply to understand better who that person is and what they see going on. It takes empathy. And as you’ll hear me say a lot this afternoon, it’s never been more important than it is now to find those wellsprings of empathy and that conscious intention to bridge differences, and find what we have in common.

Let me tell you a bit about my own experiences with connecting with others who come from very different backgrounds and cultures than mine.

I grew up in another college town, Ann Arbor, Michigan, and my father was a college professor, a scientist, with lots of colleagues who came from other countries.

Our house was close to where international families lived, and my elementary school was filled with kids from all over the world. This seemed very normal to me, and it wasn’t until I was older that I realized how privileged I was to be exposed to these other cultures so early in my life. It made me open to the world and interested in traveling to other countries, which I’ve been very fortunate to do.

But like all of us, I also am the product of my own family heritage, of being raised in a stable, comfortable and happy household, and of being an educated white American.

My experiences in other countries has made me more conscious of how this makes me privileged, and also how important it is for me to better understand the life experiences of those who haven’t had my advantages, both in other countries and here in the United States and in the state of Indiana.

As First Lady of IU, I’ve had the great good fortune to be able to travel to many of the countries where there are IU alumni. IU alums are all over the world, of course, and there are about 30 countries with significant concentrations of alums and therefore alumni chapters. President McRobbie and I have now visited nearly every one of these at least once.

They have all been wonderful experiences, but I want to talk briefly about my time in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, because it was probably the farthest from my usual experience.

IU has a lot of students from Saudi Arabia, over 600 across all of IU’s campuses, making it the fourth largest international student body at IU. And we have several hundred alumni in Saudi Arabia, mostly in Riyadh and Jedda. We only had time to visit Riyadh, including several universities there.

I was fortunate to get some great advice from a Saudi student and from the spouse of one of our faculty members, who traveled with us, so I was prepared and equipped with an abaya and a hijab.

But honestly, I did not really know what to expect in terms of how I would be treated, nor did I know how I would be able to interact with other women.

It turned out that at that time, our alumni chapter in Riyadh had not gotten fully registered as an official group, so they couldn’t hold mixed-gender gatherings.

Now, to we western women, this seems impossibly archaic, but it turned out to be a great thing, because I had my own itinerary, going to gatherings hosted by IU alumnae in their homes, attending meetings with women working in Riyadh in the private sector as well as in NGOs and government, and even meeting on my own with the president of Princess Noura University, Saudi Arabia’s largest women’s university.

And it was a unique opportunity to meet some fascinating, brilliant, accomplished women on their own turf and in their own context, and engage in candid conversations about what their lives were like.

As a western woman, it’s easy to look at the restrictions on Saudi women’s lives and see oppression and the need for change. While it’s certainly true that many Saudi women feel this need for change and are working towards it, what came home to me very clearly was how important it was to them that they effect change in the context of their culture and their religion, both of which are fundamental to their identities.

Just as women in this country have worked around the restrictions on their lives – creating organizations and changes in legislation before we had the vote, seeking professional educations before the professions were even open to us, becoming financial independent before it was possible in every state in the US for women to get credit in their own names, and the list goes on –

Saudi women are working for change in their own ways and on their own terms. I met with one young alum who had organized a semi-professional women’s basketball league, and they had figured out how to play comfortably while still respecting the norms for covering. The point was to play.

American and western women can be allies and supporters, but we need to understand their perspectives on how they want those changes to unfold. It was a great reminder of the importance of hearing directly from other women about their lives before we form judgements about what should be happening in those countries.

I had one more experience on that trip that illustrates this idea of connectedness, of finding bridges and commonalities. This was actually in India – we had traveled to New Delhi from Riyadh to open IU’s second Global Gateway office.

India has its share, maybe more than its share, of gender equity issues. One of these was manifested in the fact that women going through airport security are sent through separate lines to private screening rooms (and it takes much longer).

So there I was in a tiny curtained booth, standing before a young Indian woman, herself a Muslim in her uniform and hijab. She hardly made eye contact, and sounding pretty bored, began to ask me the standard questions as she wielded her wand: “What was the purpose of your trip?”  “Business,” I answered. “What kind of business?” “We’re from a university in the U.S., here to build our relationships with Indian institutions and meet our alums.” 

She stopped and looked at me, and then leaned toward me as she quietly asked, “Do you have engineering programs?” I began to describe both our existing programs in design and technology, and also what might lie ahead.

She put her wand down and gave me her phone so I could enter IU’s website address. Before I left the booth, she excitedly shook my hand and thanked me profusely, another young woman ready to make a leap into her future. No matter what the cultural circumstances, women want to be educated, and that’s a bond we have across cultural boundaries.

Weaving a Leadership Identity

The second theme I want to touch on is leadership, a major theme for today, of course, and very much on all of our minds as we think about where we are at this moment in time. Leadership development is a key piece of being a student at Indiana University – there are so many opportunities to be involved in groups, organizations, causes, and initiatives, and beyond the essential knowledge and competencies you are gaining in the classroom, the lab and the library, learning your own strengths and weaknesses as a leader is part of an IU education.

It is an essential piece of what I like to call “citizenship education”, not in terms of national identity but in terms of being civicly engaged. Getting an education is a privilege, however many the sacrifices you and your families may have made to ensure that you can be here. In so many parts of the world, young people, and particularly girls and young women, are prevented from even the basic education that we know is the path away from the limited circumstances and constrained futures that face them. And being educated confers an obligation to use it to benefit others – if not us, then who?

As I was thinking about my remarks for today, I reflected back to when I first thought of myself as a leader, as well as how my leadership identity has evolved and how it’s current shaped by my role as First Lady.

I had a few leadership experiences as a college student, but my real leadership awakening came in the workplace, when I was in my second job and the opportunity arose to join the campus’s Commission for Women. I became its chair shortly thereafter, and discovered that being out in front was much more part of my identity than I’d realized.

I remember being both excited and terrified―I really wanted to help change things and here was my chance, but I didn’t know how. I had to just start, and it was very much like stepping off the edge of a cliff, not at all sure if I knew how to open the parachute.

This experience of feeling clueless but also eager and excited followed me into my first management job, and even into later ones, even into the early days of my role as First Lady.

What I discovered is that people really are there to help you, and as long as you’re honest and own your mistakes, they will forgive you and give you another chance. Of course, you need to ask for their help, and take their advice, and I would not be telling a completely accurate story if I left out the times when I ignored advice, or simply didn’t ask for it because I was embarrassed at not knowing how to do something.

I also left a lot of opportunity on the ground because I didn’t seek a mentor at the right moments, or because I saw asking for advice as a sign that I was lacking in some essential skill―all those other people had seen through me, and I wasn’t really as good as I pretended to be.

These are common experiences, I think especially for women―we know them as “the imposter syndrome” and other ways that stereotypes trip us up. For what it’s worth, even the most seemingly accomplished leaders struggle with this. That’s cold comfort when you’re the one feeling incompetent and exposed, but it’s part of the process of growth, if you’re willing to embrace it and let yourself be a learner at the same time you’re the one in charge.

Finding Opportunities to Lead

Of course today, a large piece of my leadership identity stems from my role as IU’s First Lady.

Being first lady is a unique position, to say the least, especially for a feminist with a successful career, and who has been interested in women’s equality and leadership all her life. Needless to say, this wasn’t part of my career plan―I didn’t exactly apply to be First Lady―and it was a jolt to adjust to not being fully in charge of own independent life.

But I discovered quickly that while the role can be constraining, it is simultaneously liberating, in part because it isn’t well defined – is it a title or a job? I discovered early on that this ambiguity was a major advantage―I get to define my own agenda and pursue the things I truly care about.

And along with this freedom of choice, I gained something of a “bully pulpit” as First Lady. I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity! So the lesson here is that you don’t always get to choose your opportunities―sometimes they find you, and the question is just whether you recognize them, and capitalize on them.

Finding Your Voice

The third theme I want to touch on is finding your identity as a woman of IU. I mentioned the Women’s Philanthropy Leadership Council, which exists to engage our extensive community of alumnae all over the world in helping to build an even better and stronger Indiana University for generations of students to come. Over the last seven years of the Council’s existence, we have seen how passionately IU women dive into learning about the academic and service work going on at IU, and how committed they are to supporting and improving what goes on here.

Out of this we’ve developed a kind of framework to describe what it means to be connected with our programs and engaged in helping to build IU’s future, and to give the woman of IU an identity.

That identity turns on the belief that everyone, everywhere, should have the opportunity to achieve their dreams. The woman of IU is

  • Fostering health and well-being through her commitment to medical research and practice, public health, nursing, dentistry and other allied health sciences;
  • She’s shaping the arts and sciences through her involvement with the liberal arts, the humanities, and art and design;
  • She’s leading by giving of her time, talent and treasure, and committed to learning about the art and science of philanthropy;
  • She’s changing the world, through her interest in global issues, the media, study abroad experiences, and the perspectives from other cultures;

And perhaps most importantly, especially now in this time of upheaval and challenge, the woman of IU has a voice, and helps give others a voice, in standing up for the values of inclusion, tolerance, civility, and openness to the world. That is the woman of IU. She has a voice, and that voice needs to be heard.

Call to Action

As you go away from here today, I know you’re taking many insights and lessons with you, and I hope I’ve added to those:

To jump into new things even if you don’t know how to start―you will figure it out.

To admit when you need to learn something new, even when you’re supposed to be the expert and leader.

To make and keep connections and networks of friends and colleagues, starting with the ones you’re cultivating here―and to use them even when it feels embarrassing to ask how to do something you think you should know.

To find the opportunities in ambiguity, whether it’s in a job description, role in a group, or a time of transition in your work or personal life.

But I want to leave you with my most important message, which is to be a voice for others.

We understandably want the world to work for us, who have been so well prepared by our IU educations, but we also have to make it work for others who need our knowledge and skills.

We all need to be among those creating a world that is healthy, safe, inclusive and open.

It’s never only about us. So get engaged in something bigger than yourself. Be informed. Step up to your obligations as a citizen and a community member.

And welcome to your future as a woman of Indiana University.

Thank you.