International Women's Month Interview with Dr Sofya Isaakyan

"I am inspired by my wonderful female colleagues who manage the demands of balancing work and motherhood, especially in a COVID world."

Dr Sofya Isaakyan is an Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Department of Organisation and Personnel Management. Her research focuses on understanding employees' upward expression of ideas and concerns about work-related issues (i.e., voice behavior) and the corresponding reactions by managers and team members. In her work, she also explores factors affecting leadership development and leader identity. Before entering academia, Sofya worked as a consultant and evaluated the effectiveness of leadership development programs.

Do you have an RSM “I WILL” statement? If so, please tell us what it is and why you chose this statement.

“I WILL develop others through embracing challenge”

I chose this statement as I am really passionate about personal leadership development, both from a research and practical perspective. One thing which I strongly believe in is that we truly develop only when we challenge ourselves and get out of our comfort zone.

I try to use this principle in my teaching, and I often see how challenging experiences help us to develop, learn more about ourselves, and boost our confidence once we learn to effectively address and overcome the challenges we face.

This principle is, of course, also very relevant to specific challenges that female leaders face today. We all hope that one day female leaders will no longer face any of such challenges which are driven by gender biases. However, while these challenges still exist, I think we need to encourage our female leaders to embrace challenges, believe in themselves, never give up even if it is really hard, pursue their goals and dreams, and be reminded that these challenges will only make them stronger.

Which women are you inspired by – either in your immediate network or globally?

I am extremely grateful to be surrounded by many inspiring women. I am inspired by my wonderful female colleagues who manage the demands of balancing work and motherhood, especially in a COVID world.

I am inspired by my female students many of whom come from countries where gender bias is still very prevalent. These students often talk about their strong desire to go back to their countries and proactively fight for female rights.

I am also inspired by many wonderful female scholars who do fascinating research in my field.

But I would like to especially highlight that the most inspiring woman in my life was my grandmother. During the war, she remained alone with three children at the age of 21. Although she lost everything in her life, she managed to address all the challenges that she faced, raised her children, and provided them good education. Overall, throughout her life, she proved that you may appear very soft from outside, but you may still have such an inner strength that no life challenges can break you.

What barriers have you faced in your career and how did you overcome them?

I think I am extremely lucky because I don’t think I have ever faced any barriers in my career driven by the fact that I am a woman or a foreigner (although I have been living abroad most of my life). I have always been surrounded by people who would judge me based on my competence. I understand that not everyone is as lucky as I am in that regard and, unfortunately, very often we still hear different examples of unfair treatment in academia driven by gender or ethnic biases. However, I still hope that my example will be encouraging for other women who would like to join academia and will help them to understand that, although the problem is real, it is not ubiquitous.

As women, how can we encourage and help other women to achieve more in their careers?

Organizations should continue working on fostering more inclusive cultures where women and men have equal opportunities to progress in their career through establishing HR practices and policies that would allow to counteract potential biases.

Yet, I think one of the important things that we personally as women can do is setting an example to other women. I think we often do not understand and realize how much impact we may have on other people when we personally manage to achieve more in our careers. I myself realized that a few years ago when I just started working at RSM.

In that period, I was teaching the OB course to the first year IBA students. One day, after I gave a lecture, one of my students approached me. I expected her to ask me questions related to the content of the lecture. But instead, she wanted to thank me. She said that for her it was extremely inspiring and empowering to have a young female non-Dutch professor. She highlighted that this boosted a lot of confidence in her that she could also achieve everything she wanted in her life. I was really touched by what she said as I used to think that the biggest impact that I could make when teaching is through the knowledge that I gave to my students. But in that moment, I realized that sometimes I can also impact other people’s lives by just simply working on my personal development.

What advice would you give women at RSM who want to become leaders?

Although there is some shift, but still many people hold certain preconceived norms that in order to be effective, leaders should display more male-type behaviors such as assertiveness and dominance. As a result, there are many female leaders who strive to meet these norms even if this may conflict with their natural tendencies. Instead, I believe that female as well male leaders should always remain true to themselves and further prove that there is no golden rule about how to be an effective leader and that you can still be influential by displaying other type of behaviors.

I am currently teaching the Personal Leadership Development course to full-time MBA students. During one of the last sessions, my students were giving feedback to each other in their teams. There was a moment when one of my male students was thanking his female team member for showing him that leadership was not allows about being the loudest and most dominant in the room, but that you could exert influence by other means. In particular, he highlighted that this female team member was very influential within the team while displaying modesty, humility, and not trying to dominate in the discussions. This was a very powerful moment for everyone. I hope that more leaders will find their own effective way of leadership which would still allow them to be themselves without trying to meet any “standards”.

Anything else you’d like to add?

These days I often see many events and initiatives on social media encouraging women to support other women. I personally participate in many of these events and initiatives, and find them extremely helpful and inspiring. Yet, I think that for centuries, we have been having this separation and categorization between men and women, and what I would really like to see is more initiatives and events where women not only are encouraged to support other women, but are also encouraged to support men and in general anyone who has ever faced any unfair treatment and inequality.

More information

The Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) is committed to women’s continued advancement into leadership positions across multiple sectors – from multinationals and start-ups to not-for-profit organisations. ECWO supports gender-balanced leadership through its management educationresearch and events about gender equality, and by coaching female business leaders. Its strong network leads to women empowerment and gender equality to the benefit of business and society.

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