Zia encourages women to raise their voices and find inner passion

Janette Neuwahl

At age 18, Helen Zia had never even considered talking back to her parents.

Growing up as a young woman in a traditional Chinese household, she learned that her parents and teachers were “like God,” and she never dared disobey them.

But when her college acceptance letter arrived with a full scholarship and her father refused to sign the registration papers, Zia raised her voice for the first time.

That made all the difference, the keynote speaker told about 90 students at Saturday’s 11th annual Women in Leadership conference.

“In that first conscious act I was transforming myself, and in that way, I was changing the world around me,” Zia said. “I began to realize that there was some passion inside of me to speak out in hopes of making a difference.”

Zia, a journalist and contributing editor for Ms. Magazine, addressed racial profiling, the feminist movement and leadership at the conference in Norris University Center.

Using humor to appeal to her audience, Zia said she was not afraid to “use the f-word: feminist,” and stressed that women often have to use their leadership skills to overcome the male presence in the workplace.

“When (men) do not do something right, it is us who end up cleaning up,” she said.

Zia, whose speech was sponsored by Women’s Coalition, said women leaders need to have a vision and carry it out.

“Leadership is the conscious act of taking responsibility of who you are and what you plan to do, to stand ahead of the crowd and not pass the buck,” Zia said.

Zia’s speech focused on her life not just as a woman but also as an Asian American and a lesbian. She often returned to how she has felt discouraged from voicing her opinion, even in situations as simple as correcting a teacher who mispronounced her name.

“I knew that there was something wrong but nevertheless, I was a quite obedient daughter,” Zia said.

But Zia has come a long way from being a child in New Jersey who was “seen and not heard.” After shouting at her father for the first time, letting him know she was going to college despite his rebuttal, her father picked up the pen and signed the registration form for college.

But Zia did not find her calling as a journalist until she dropped out of medical school and lost her job as an autoworker. One day while watching an inaccurate television news story about unemployment, she found herself shouting at the TV and thinking that she could do better.

“There is a power in the words you say to yourself and what you do about them,” Zia said. “That day was a big milestone for me because it was when I began to lift my own expectations of myself and began to believe I could write for a magazine.”

Zia brought her beliefs to newspaper reporting and then to Ms. Magazine, where she became executive editor. Although her colleagues discouraged her from becoming too involved in topics she was writing about, Zia said she refused to listen.

“I found that if you are passionate about your values and integrity, people will see that and respect it,” Zia said. “My words and passion have helped me learn about finding my voice.”

Before the keynote speech, conference attendees chose among 10 workshops on topics such as sexual harassment and women business leaders. At “Career and Family: Achieving your Dreams,” Northwestern graduate Joyce Gab Kneeland spoke about the various roles she has played: senior executive at AT&T, wife, mother, role model, mentor and volunteer.

Weinberg junior Laura Millendorf, who received the conference’s Student Pathbreaker award for serving as a catalyst for other female leaders, said the conference demonstrated how much opportunity exists for women today.

“The idea of equality and leadership is people knowing that there’s an infinite number of opportunities out there to take advantage of,” said Millendorf, director of Women’s Coalition and a member of the Women in Leadership steering committee. “You can only take advantage of these opportunities by being proactive and that’s what leadership is all about.”