Tiffany Dufu Wants More Women on Top (of the World)

Do you have a mentor?

If you’d asked me that question a few weeks ago, I probably would have paused and then, in a panic, said something like “uhh…yes, Maya Angelou.” Which is a stupid answer considering she died several years ago and has only ever been my mentor in my head.

It’s not that I haven’t been surrounded and supported by smart, generous, helpful older women and men IRL. It’s that I always felt like the term was so serious and so weighty, no one person could do everything and be everything that it implied.

But Tiffany Dufu, Chief Leadership Officer at Levo League, believes that many of us need to learn the difference between a mentor (someone who encourages and advises you while you’re in the room) and a sponsor (someone who always speaks about you when you’re not in the room). That distinction makes it easier to identify the different, but equally valuable, roles elders play in your life.

As for Tiffany, she takes her role as both very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that she wants her tombstone to one day say, “She got to as many women she could.” She considers advancing women and girls to be her life’s calling and has spent her entire career finding innovative, meaningful ways to do just that.

Her new book, Drop the Ball, is all about what she believes it will take for women to break through to new levels of leadership. I read it and I’m already making smarter decisions about where to spend my time, how to prioritize my responsibilities and what things it’s okay to let go of in order to achieve my goals.

Tiffany dropped so many gems about how to succeed as an ambitious woman in our conversation that she quickly earned a spot next to Dr. Maya as a bonafide Mentor in My Head. I have a feeling she doesn’t mind at all.


Tiffany: The reason why the book, to me, is important, is because when I look at the number of women who are at the highest levels of leadership — and it’s basically stayed the same, it’s about 18 percent across all sectors of our society and it’s been that way for the past 20 years — I really thought, why can’t we get more women in leadership? I had what I call a Tiffany’s epiphany, and it hit me, and it feels so silly because it’s just so obvious, that being at the highest levels of leadership (like a CEO or a VP) requires an enormous amount of work. Most women are already doing an enormous amount of work. And when you’re doing a lot of work, when you have a lot on your plate, do you feel like taking on more? No, not really.

It occurred to me that the only way we could get more women into the highest levels of leadership is by figuring out a way to clear up some of their bandwidth. One of the ways in which women’s bandwidth is being occupied more than men’s is related to the huge workforce revolution of the 1950s when women entered the workforce in droves. The public sphere has really benefited from our talent and and our ingenuity and our creativity. But we didn’t have the same inverse revolution in the private sphere. It’s not as if, as women went into the workforce, men started running PTAs. And so, what we’re left with is this life-go-round for women in which we are managing a full-time career outside the home and being the boss inside of the home. We’re literally dizzy and spinning. That’s what I’m trying to free women from — psychologically, but also in a very practical way.

Erica: The psychological piece is so interesting. You gave a talk in centric’s The Round and you said that women are doing more than most people do, and we’re doing it before 8 a.m., but still feel inadequate. That’s the irony of it all. Not just that women are overwhelmed and maxing out their bandwidth, but that even in doing so, have this constant narrative of inadequacy running through our minds. How do you stop that narrative?

Tiffany: The first step is really doing an assessment of your expectations. This happened to me accidentally. I was teaching a workshop on time management and in the first part of the exercise, I asked women to write down all the things they expected to do or complete in an ideal day. I asked them to exhaust the list. You get up in the morning, maybe you go to the gym, maybe you lie in bed thinking about going to the gym, and that takes 20 minutes sometimes [laughing]. You get up, you pick an outfit, you get ready for work, maybe you get other people ready for school, maybe you drop people off, maybe you prepare the meeting presentation — I go through every single thing in the day. I ask them to write how long they think it’d take them to complete each one of those tasks, then, at the bottom, to sum the total. Well, I was really struck by the fact that not one woman in the room had a sum that amounted to less than the 24 hours any of us are given in a day. And only half the women had put sleep on their list.

It hit me: No wonder we feel inadequate! No wonder we’re walking around with this narrative, if we have this idea in our minds that this is what we are supposed to be completing/doing/achieving in an ideal day. But it’s humanely impossible, as evidenced by the math…And so managing those expectations, for me, has really been helpful.

Collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt.

Erica Williams Simon

Erica Williams Simon

Erica Williams Simon is the host of The Call.

More from Podcasts