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I expected being a female leader to be rewarding, but I didn’t expect it to also hurt

Being the editor of The Chronicle is the most worthwhile thing I could have done at Duke. 

It was also the hardest thing and it challenged me in incredible ways. And the days when I was ready for it all to end pale in comparison to the overwhelming satisfaction I felt every other day of the past year.

It’s hard criticizing things you love. But, I have spent my time at Duke holding people and institutions accountable—and that doesn’t stop with The Chronicle. It is because I love The Chronicle so much that I want to critically reflect on my year as its leader. 

There are also so many inspiring women in leadership roles and who aspire to be leaders at Duke, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that leadership journey is a fair or equal one. So, I want to share my experience to highlight some gender inequities in student organizations at Duke.

The best way I can express what I’ve learned is to start last September in a dark movie theater at Southpoint:

There was a knot in the back of my throat—like I was about to cry. I was shifting uncomfortably in my seat. Soon enough, tears started rolling down my face as I watched a screening of Darren Aronofsky's mother! I hadn't expected to feel this emotional—the usual tropes of a sad scene weren’t present. There wasn’t sad music. There wasn’t death or loss. There was just chaos.

In the movie, Jennifer Lawrence’s character, the mother, was hosting a wake. At first, a few strangers arrived, who already made her uncomfortable. She hadn’t expected to host so many people she didn’t know. Then, more and more people entered. She’s trying so hard to be good host, while everyone around her seems to be doing everything in their power to wreck her fragile, unfinished house.

As she’s telling them not to sit on a sink that wasn’t bolted in or to not repaint the walls or to not go in her husband’s study or to stop throwing around vases, they don’t listen to her. And it’s when the people bouncing on the sink—despite the mother telling them multiple times in various ways not to do so—detach the sink from the wall with their weight and cause a massive water main break, tears start welling up in my eyes. 

And then, she loses it and so do I. Tears fall freely from my face as she yells at everyone to get out of her house.

I cried because what I was seeing on the screen reminded me so fundamentally of my experience with female leadership. The most frustrating thing about being a female leader, in my experience, is the lack of respect that comes from being ignored or taken for granted. 

It’s those times you ask people to stop doing something that is counterproductive, frustrating, destructive, abrasive, rude, unprofessional, inappropriate, etc. and your request is disregarded—as if it were a casual suggestion from a peer and not a directive from the person in charge. It’s those times when you ask people to do something and they don’t do it and you remind them again and again and again and they still don’t do it. It’s also when you sit down with them and they question why you told them to do that task in the first place. It’s feeling like people see you in only two ways—either not aggressive enough or a b****. It’s those instances when you give your blood and sweat to take care of your co-workers and you do not receive that care back.

These things are definitely not isolated to The Chronicle or even to women. But, I often wonder if some of those same requests—which are truly as simple as not destroying an unfinished kitchen by being careless in mother!—would have been treated with such resistance if a man were at the helm. And having seen men at the helm of The Chronicle and elsewhere, I don’t think they would have.

The other difference in leadership styles I’ve seen in men and women is the emotional labor women put into their roles and their staffers. Consistently, the female leaders I’ve witnessed at The Chronicle and at Duke are more likely to inquire about the lives of the people they supervise. They’re more likely to offer emotional and material support during stressful times. I view this as smart leadership. Only when you know the people you work with—what is weighing on them, what they are passionate about—can you position them to produce their best work or plan for situations when their work will not meet expectations. 

I don’t mean to paint all men as aloof and all women as compassionate, because that wouldn’t be true to my experience. But, I think for women and men who do put in the emotional labor of learning about the people they work with, it can be draining and likely not reciprocated—though that’s manageable. What’s not manageable is putting in all that work but still having people who you’ve now come to care for so deeply, professionally and personally, disrespect you or undermine your leadership.

As a society, we have to be more accepting of female leadership in real ways, not just in writing or words. We have to support women who choose to lean into their careers and those who choose to follow other passions. 

And I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been complicit in the exact things I’ve been critical of in this column.

As an example, for most of the year, my entire upper masthead and the section editors—the leadership of The Chronicle—were male and I chose them. When I was deciding who to put in positions of power, their gender was not in the forefront of my mind. In recent history, The Chronicle leadership has not been so male. Ten of the last 17 editors have been female and there are similar numbers of women and men at The Chronicle. In fact, next year, only two of the six section heads will be male.

But, in a fluke of my own making, I found myself surrounded by men, which in itself is not wrong. The problem occurs when female voices are being drowned out or female work is not sufficiently acknowledged. I’ve tried my best to provide opportunities for leadership and acknowledgement for women, but there are people I wish I could have supported more.

At the end of mother!, Lawrence’s character is so outraged and frustrated that she lights her house—the thing she loves most—on fire. I can’t say that I share that feeling. Although there have been moments where I have felt powerless and frustrated, this past year has been one of the best in my life. 

Being a female leader in the way that I have done it can be extremely gratifying. I reap the personal benefits of the mentorship that I have been able to provide to younger female and male members of The Chronicle every day. It’s humbling to have people look up to you and come to you for advice, and to be able to provide support.

For the most part, I have felt that people at The Chronicle have the best intentions and want to support me. But, sometimes men and women participate in harmful gendered ways without intending to cause harm. This is not to say The Chronicle is not an accepting or inclusive place. In fact, it’s because of its inclusivity that I was able to ascend to the top position. 

It is in our office, 301 Flowers, that I have grown as a person and as a leader. It is there that I’ve been able to use the things I’ve learned in the classroom to service my community and my peers. It’s there where I’ve met my closest friends and had the chance to be a part of something much bigger than myself.

The Chronicle isn’t a part of my Duke experience. The Chronicle is my Duke experience.

Likhitha Butchireddygari is a Trinity junior and former editor-in-chief of The Chronicle. She would like to thank her News Editor Kenrick Cai for knowing the exact right thing to do and supporting her through the worst of times. She would also like to extend her gratitude to Sports Editor Hank Tucker for his delightful presence and consistently delivering excellence in his section. Managing Editor Sam Turken and Senior Editor Vir Patel were also instrumental for Butchireddygari’s sanity this year. She would like to thank incoming Opinion Editor Frances Beroset for being her ride or die and the late night/early morning phone calls from Italy. Lastly, she would like to thank the staff at The Chronicle for being her family these past few years.

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