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In this episode of Lehigh University’s College of Business ilLUminate podcast, we are talking with Sam Dewalt about the critical role that authenticity plays for women leaders in the workplace.

Dewalt is managing director of Lehigh@NasdaqCenter, an exclusive education industry partnership between Lehigh University and the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center in San Francisco. She earned a doctorate in organizational leadership from Pepperdine University and completed her doctoral dissertation on authenticity and women in technology leadership.

Dewalt spoke with Jack Croft, host of the ilLUminate podcast. Listen to the podcast here and subscribe and download Lehigh Business on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

Below is an edited excerpt from that conversation. Read the complete podcast transcript [PDF]

Jack Croft: I mentioned in the intro your doctoral dissertation and the issue of authenticity and women in, specifically, technology leadership. But broadening to women in leadership positions in any kind of entrepreneurial function has been part of your continuing work in your career at Lehigh@NasdaqCenter. So I think it would probably be best if we start by defining the role of what being authentic on the job means in this context.

Sam Dewalt: At the core, authenticity is really about being true to oneself. It's understanding your core values, your principles and beliefs, and living them out every day through your actions and words, regardless of situations or circumstance. In the workplace, it's also about bringing your whole self to work and recognizing that your personal and professional identities can and should coexist.

Now, I always like to caveat that authenticity does not mean that it's OK to be rude and just say what's on the top of your mind without understanding the impact that it might have on others. So authenticity is really a balance, and emotional intelligence plays a really key role when it comes to authenticity. And specifically in the tech sector, the tech sector has a reputation for being inhospitable to women. Women often encounter long-established norms in some predominantly male organizations and believing that they need to conform in order to advance up the corporate ladder.

But like all leaders, women really need to be in an environment that allows them to act in a manner that is congruent with their inner values and beliefs. And that's really the inspiration behind my original research and my continued work today.

Croft: Recently, you wrote an article on this topic for Fast Company, and there was a line in there that I really liked that struck me right off the bat here. And … I'll quote, "My study proved surprisingly useful, particularly my insights into how a woman can best practice the art of authenticity as if it were a superpower to be harnessed." So what were the insights that you gained from your study concerning how authenticity can be a potential superpower for women in leadership?

Dewalt: There's a concept in the research literature known as the female advantage. Women leaders have been found to bring gender-specific capabilities to the workforce like empathy or relationship building. Research, for example, shows that women compared to men tend to be more collaborative and empathetic than directive or autocratic.

And the women that I interviewed and the women that come in and speak to our students through the Women in Tech class often talk about-- they might not use the terminology female advantage, but they do talk about the power of being able to harness your unique abilities, your unique strengths, your unique voice to be able to stand out favorably in the workplace.

So the ones who did harness their authenticity, meaning that they were able to bring their voice forward and lead in a way that aligns with their personal values, strengths, so being collaborative as an example, rather than feeling like you need to be more autocratic or directive, in the end, actually paid off for them. And they were able to succeed by being themselves. And so this idea of authenticity as a superpower is the idea that you can succeed by being yourself, but even greater by harnessing your unique strengths and really leaning into that. You can actually be a much more effective leader at the end of the day.

Croft: Another thing that was in your original study and also in the article you wrote for Fast Company was that one of the main takeaways of your research is that authenticity is a skill that can be developed. And that's a very interesting concept. So what are some of the ways that women can develop the skill of authenticity? And are there ways that employers can encourage the development of authenticity on the job?

Dewalt: Historically, authenticity has been viewed as a skill-based phenomenon. So you either have it or you don't. And in reality, it's more of a state-based phenomenon in that it can vary based on the specific environment in which a person functions.

And through the research, I was able to confirm that an individual's authenticity does develop over time with experience and a greater understanding of self. So that's really where it starts, is developing this greater sense of self.

I actually, through the research, developed a framework called the DIvA Framework to help women develop individual authenticity. And the core components of it are, one, developing your emotional intelligence. So that's things like self-awareness and self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.

So really focusing in on developing and practicing emotional intelligence is really core to developing your authenticity. Also, understanding this concept of whole self and embracing this integrated self of the personal and professional and not separating out the two or hiding aspects of yourself.

One example that came up in my interviews was that women would have to hide the fact that they were leaving work to go watch their child's baseball game, when, in fact, we should celebrate the fact that you can step away for a moment to go watch your child's baseball game and celebrate those important moments in life while still getting the job done and getting the work done.

So for me today, being a mom is a critical part of my identity. And I talk about that at work. And in fact, bringing in some of the personal aspects of yourself into the workplace, again, applying that emotional intelligence, can help build greater authentic connections with others. So I connect with others now over my role as being a mom.

Two of the other things that I talk about in the research: one, developing a support network. So finding mentors, sponsors, colleagues, even family members who can help you stay grounded in your true self and help you really kind of develop as an individual. I have had incredible mentors and sponsors in my life, both male and female. And the same was true of the women that I interviewed. And the women that come into our class talk about the importance of really developing that support network. We like to call it developing your personal board of directors. And that's something that we actually teach to the students.

And then finally, knowing your true north. Your true north is one's guiding compass. It's your passions, your motivations, it's your purpose in life. And being in touch with your authentic self really starts with identifying and sort of defining what that true north is for you.

So those are some of the ways that you as an individual can develop your individual authenticity. And from an employer perspective, I think making it part of your core values in that you want to celebrate diversity and diverse perspectives means creating the space for individuals to bring forward those unique perspectives and identities and creating space for people to integrate their personal and professional life and be their best selves at work.

It doesn't just lead to greater individual happiness and psychological well-being. There's actually research to support that it leads to greater organizational performance. So from an organizational standpoint, being able to create the space and support to allow all individuals to be the best versions of their authentic selves makes sense from a business standpoint as well.

Dr. Samantha Dewalt

Dr. Samantha Dewalt

Managing Director, Lehigh@NasdaqCenter