Women Describe Becoming Resilient Through Adversity

“The gift of encouragement can provide individuals with the strength necessary to work through the difficult, dark moments.”

Do hard times beat us down or make us stronger? The answer depends on lots of things, especially the way we respond to the hard times.

In physical science, resilience is the ability of a material that’s been stretched or compressed to return to its original shape. Stretch a rubber band, let go and you have the same rubber band you started with.

It’s the same in women’s lives. Everyone sometimes feels pressed or bent out of shape. Resilient women get through it, emerging from adversity unscathed or even stronger. Dr. Danna Beaty, assistant professor in educational administration at Tarleton State University TX, and Dr. Anita Pankake, professor in educational leadership at the University of Texas-Pan American, studied women leaders’ stories of adversity. Although their data is from women superintendents and principals, their study applies challenges faced by women on campus.

Resilience is a hot field in business but hasn’t been looked at as much in education, Beaty said at the University of Nebraska’s conference on Women in Educational Leadership in Lincoln.

They used data from two studies to sample Texas women in top educational leadership positions traditionally held by men.

In interviews lasting an hour or more, they asked how experiences of personal or professional adversity had influenced their success as educational leaders. “The women could discuss the adversity in detail. They had more trouble talking about how they dealt with it,” Beaty said.

Life lessons

Childhood experiences can profoundly affect whom we become as adults. Two themes emerging from the women’s childhood troubles were support and expectations.

Adversity can strengthen a child who has a source of support, which doesn’t always come from her family. One described growing up with a mother who was ill and a father who was abusive. The key is that someone, somewhere—a grandmother, a teacher, an adult friend who believes in the child—holds out an encouraging hand.

Support helps most when coupled with positive expectations. From early childhood, those around us set expectations that may follow us all our lives. Too often they’re shaped by unintended bias. A Latina talked about her second grade teacher, who was wonderful with her students and followed them through high school graduation. Although the Latina was class valedictorian, never once did the teacher suggest she go to college.

Remembering difficulties in childhood, the leaders drew on those experiences to reach out to young people they saw suffering in similar ways. What they’d learned about the importance of support and expectations enabled them to establish a kind of lifeline for others.

Walking through

 “There’s a difference between surviving adversity and going through it,” Beaty said. How do some people develop the capacity to deal with adversity, while others are simply beaten down and never recover?

Low expectations, fears or devastating failures can plant seeds of self-doubt. Several traits help some walk through to the other side:

  • Self reflection. Looking at oneself in a metaphorical mirror can’t just be a “sometimes” thing. Resilient women critique themselves honestly with a long-term commitment to self-improvement.
  • Tenacity. Having identified a weakness, resilient women are stubborn about confronting it. They set and follow a personal agenda to overcome it. One was labeled as mentally defective in childhood because, to avoid being called on, she didn’t talk. Determination helped her to rise above others’ low expectations to become a high school principal.
  • Outreach. Wisdom consists partly in not trying to go it alone. When energy and confidence droop in the face of difficulties, resilient women reach out to someone else whose vision isn’t as clouded, whose perspective is more objective, whose energy is intact. “The gift of encouragement can provide individuals with the strength necessary to work through the difficult, dark moments,” Beaty said.

Stronger for it

Walking through adversity had made them stronger and tough assignments made them stronger leaders, they said.

Several developed high self-expectations in response to low expectations from others. Negative labels could be sadly self-fulfilling prophesies for some. For others, saying “you can’t” sets off a reaction: I’ll show you.

Spirituality and faith played an important role for several. “I’ve always been a Christian,” one said to help explain why adversity made her stronger.

Finally, difficulties helped them realize they couldn’t always be Superwoman. “That’s something a lot of women have trouble with,” Beaty said. Feeling demands for perfection as professionals, volunteers, citizens, housekeepers, wives, mothers, daughters and friends—not to mention perfection in dress and appearance—can paralyzed one with guilt. Personal or professional problems that make us let go of paralyzing expectations can open the way for leadership success.

One who valued the strength she’d gained through adversity still ran interference to make life easier for her kids, Pankake said. In trying to protect them from difficulties, are parents making their kids more powerful or less so?

Women in the study ranged in age from their late 40s into their 70s. In today’s culture, helicopter parents hover over their children, taking away the opportunity to learn from mistakes. How will such intense, protective parenting affect the women leaders of tomorrow? Only time—and further research—will tell.

 Dr. Danna M. Beaty: dbeaty@tarleton.edu  or 254.968.1899

Dr. Anita Pankake: apankake@panam.edu  or 956.292.7417

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