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Participants in the March 9 panel of Madison women leaders included (from left) Mary Barneby, Linda Niccolai, Mary Elliott, Erin Duques, Keelin Virgulto, Martina Lind, Donna Farrell, and Peggy Lyons. (Photo by Jesse William/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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A Daniel Hand High School (DDHS) student, inspired by the historic mark of the 100th year of women’s suffrage in the United States, decided to bring a special, local flavor to Women’s History Month this year, gathering a star-studded panel of some of Madison’s female leaders on March 9 to discuss the experiences, journeys, and challenges they have faced as powerful women.
Keelin Virgulto, currently a junior at DHHS, said she sought out Madison leaders, wanting to do something “to recognize the different women in our community” as part of broader celebrations of the 100 years since the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote.
The panelists included two members of Madison’s Board of Selectmen—Erin Duques and First Selectman Peggy Lyons. Also on the panel was CEO of the Girl Scouts of Connecticut Mary Barneby, Yale professor of Epidemiology Linda Niccolai, architect Martina Lind, American Legion Griswold Post 79 Commander Donna Farrell, and Yale med school student Mary Elliott.
Board of Education Chair Katie Stein introduced the group.
“Your leadership example, your dedication, and your perseverance inspire me every day and I am forever grateful for your many positive contributions to our community,” she said.
Virgulto said she specifically sought out women whose professional and personal experiences varied widely—from working as firefighters and in the military to the corporate world of New York City—with the hope of illustrating the many positive changes women have seen while still showing how far there is to go to reach equality.
Panelists mostly took turns answering Virgulto’s questions, with many of them sharing the same experiences as far as struggles and triumphs in their various worlds, though each woman’s story on how she rose to leadership positions was different.
One of the first questions on barriers had almost every panelist talking about imposter syndrome—the feeling that you do not belong or are not qualified for a position, doubting accomplishments or qualifications.
“Girls and women have to be able to say, ‘I am good enough,’” Barneby said
Niccolai spoke about how men are more often self-advocates and self motivators, and said she often experienced her own doubts or internalized ideas about what success or leadership is as obstacles.
“Our notions are just as much barriers as they are motivators,” she said.
Duques, who works as a lawyer while serving on Madison’s Board of Selectmen, said she has also seen that in her industry—men simply assume they will figure some task or responsibility out, while women doubt themselves.
The solution, she said, is to “have confidence you can learn and grow” in those sorts of situations.
Another question from Virgulto asked when or if the panelists knew they would be leaders, which also elicited a wide range of responses and experiences.
Barneby said she recalled being labeled “bossy” when she was younger—a word that she specifically worked to weed out as part of the “Ban Bossy” campaign with the Girl Scouts. Girls and young women who show leadership qualities often have negative associations or labels like that pushed on them, according to Barneby.
Lind spoke about her experience both playing and coaching sports, where she said her coaches taught her “to be as good as I want to be,” and also that there are no excuses—that you can keep fighting rather than dwelling on mistakes or failures. Lind said she is able to pass on those same lessons now, as she herself coaches lacrosse.
Farrell had one of the more dramatic stories, saying she first felt like a leader when a man was killed by a helicopter during her tenure overseeing search and rescue operations. Following this tragedy, she independently went out into the community to raise money for the proper communication infrastructure that would prevent future accidents like this from happening.
Farrell was the first woman to be honored as Airman of the Year in recognition of this work.
Many of the panelists also spoke about fighting for recognition in a male-dominated world. Lyons in particular said that the social and networking world, where she spent many years working in finance and banking, was not very welcoming to women, especially young women.
Elliott, however, shared a different experience. Working as a firefighter, she felt very respected and uplifted by her male colleagues in a mostly male environment. One co-worker told her, she said, that some of the male firefighters were afraid of her.
“And that’s fine,” Elliott deadpanned.
After the panel, Virgulto said she was happy that both experiences were part of the story—that women could talk about both the progress and the continued struggles in society.
“I think it gives hope to women that there has been a lot of change,” she said.
Lyons, in response to an earlier question about obstacles, said the women on the panel were proof that progress was being made.
“Our children will have examples in all these organizations of women being strong leaders,” she said.
The 2020 guide to the Madison Chamber of Commerce has arrived!