Debunking #girlboss with Saron Mehari
I had the pleasure of talking to ACS President Saron Mehari about her experiences as a female leader and what inspires her. Saron speaks about how she rarely considered her gender until arriving at Cambridge, an institution that can be oftentimes marked by male elitism. Raising issues such as imposter syndrome and the implications of being a woman in Cambridge, it was refreshing to hear such a calm and collected approach to leadership, and how she is trying to move away from the girl-boss stereotype.
Firstly, what does leadership mean to you?
‘I think through communication with past leaders or my mum advising me, my perception of leadership has always been that it isn’t about me. I guess there is an element of servanthood and being able to lead horizontally that is so important. I think it is helpful to go into leadership with that mentality, especially with the terms we have had, being extra challenging with COVID. Not being able to lead in a physical team, it was very important to be just as hands on and as close to the rest of the committee. I am really lucky in that aspect that I have good people to lead, they guide and lead me! It is quite a give and take relationship which I am really lucky to have, it has been an amazing experience, hard, but amazing!’
What motivated you to run for president?
Initially I didn’t want to run, not in the sense that I didn’t want to be part of the committee. ACS was my lifeline, I was there every week, after every essay crisis, and I made most of my friends there. When it came around to hustings, I was considering running for welfare or maybe events, but my friend said I should think about applying for president. I’m quite an outgoing and bubbly person, and I have always been really committed to ACS, but I think the imposter syndrome that comes along with being at Cambridge, it seemed like such an unrealistic achievement. But my friend encouraged me enough, so I made a manifesto and wanted to see change and create a new environment within ACS. I wanted it to become a space for every type of black student. I think there is a stereotype that ACS is just for black students from a particular background, religion or sexuality.
Do you think that imposter syndrome is something that affects women more prominently than men in terms of stepping into spaces of leadership?
Yes 100%. I have always been raised to think that women can do anything and everything, so my gender was never really a thing I considered. But stepping into Cambridge, I think I was very aware that it is a place that is very male dominated and elitist, so I had to try and figure out where I fit into that. I think there tends to be a stereotype of what a leader is, especially within ACS. I was lucky that my predecessor was a woman. She was incredible and did amazing things, but I think that it still takes a lot for women to consider entering spaces of leadership, since the clinical, suited and booted stereotype of a leader is still very strong. I think sometimes women are underestimated and not looked upon to be leaders. I don’t think I present myself as the stereotypical boss-woman. I had to think about the reasons I want to do this role, what I am looking to add, and if that is more valuable than the set of stereotypes of what people think a leader should be, then I should go for it.
Do you feel any pressure as a female leader not to slip up?
Yes and no. I don’t know if I would pinpoint the pressure to me being a woman, since I think that there are a lot of things about my leadership that were not typical. There have been quite a few female presidents, and the committee currently is quite female dominated. But I was the first president of East African descent, and being a leader from a working-class background scared me, because I didn’t have the connections or have the things behind me that would help me deliver certain events. I think if I was to mess up it would be because people might say that ‘I am not the type of person that should be leading ACS’, which could be down to being a woman, but I think also it is down to a lot of other factors. I think that there is a stereotype of a female leader not being logical enough or being too soft and not communicating enough but I don’t think that being a woman particularly adds to any pressures I might feel.
Do you have any role models within and outside of Cambridge?
I would definitely say Wanipa Ndhlovu, the president before me. I think she set an amazing example of what a leader can be, but almost without making herself seem like a leader. She was just like one of us, of the crowd. You could also feel a sense of guidance and moving forward with her, and she is foreseeing a lot of change even structurally within the university, and that really inspired me to keep that going. I think also my friend who encouraged me to run for President. She was my rock behind it all and having that level of female solidarity from the start pushed me throughout the process. She has always been really supportive of me even during my term as President. Outside of Cambridge, I don’t know if it’s a cop out answer, but all the women in my family: my mum and my two aunts. Their life story is amazing, and there is a level of sacrifice that I’ve always seen through them. Having them as role models in my family and seeing that type of female leadership from such a young age, that kind of independence and seeing how far they have come is so empowering. They have taught me how to work from where there is nothing that something can always come of it.
Would you call yourself a role model to others?
No! That’s not me trying to be humble, but I just think that being a role model isn’t something I consciously aim to do. I just aim to live with integrity, being honest and open with my life experiences and my struggles, and to be accommodating to people around me. I would rather that people felt warm and safe around me, rather than seeing me as just a ‘girl-boss’. I would rather that people just feel good and have a sense of calm when they are around me, rather than seeing me just for going to Cambridge, or being President, so in that sense I would rather not be a role model, just someone to look to rather than up to.
What are the plans for ACS?
We are doing a series called ‘Into the Industry’ where we are talking to black creators, initially just from the UK, but now globally too, about how they got into the industry and to try and change the perception within the black community that the only way to achieve black excellence is through doing something professional. We are also hoping to speak to the Prime Minister of Barbados soon, and then we have the handover for next year’s committee!
Finally, what advice would you give to the women in Cambridge?
I’d just say don’t be afraid to use what you think might exclude you from certain positions, don’t be afraid to use that in your favour. In terms of leadership just remember that your aim isn’t always to be the figurehead. Of course it is important to stand up and represent when it is the right time, but fundamentally you are the chair for people in the society to sit on, and you are responsible for being that place of rest and comfort for people. Especially in Cambridge where there is a lot of pressure, it is so important to strive to make that space of comfort, and that comes from you, as a leader.
Thank you so much Saron for sharing your experiences and advice!