By: Natalie Tursi, Gateway Regional High School, Woodbury Heights
WOODBURY HEIGHTS, N.J – Women’s History Month is celebrated annually during the month of March. The month is dedicated to recognizing and honoring the female population for all that they do and all that they have accomplished. It is a celebration of women everywhere.
The month-long celebration is a great opportunity for women to share their experiences and commemorate their own accomplishments, other women’s accomplishments, and everything that women have done in the past.
Women’s Empowerment Week is an annual event held at Gateway Regional High School during the month of March. It is organized and promoted by the female students of Gateway in honor of Women’s History Month. A three day panel is set up with women in the workforce who come to talk to a group of aspiring young women in the school throughout the week. They talk about their experiences, jobs, stories, and offer inspiring advice to the younger generation of women.
This year’s empowerment week was organized by seniors Brooke Williams and Mikayla Lee. Their chosen theme for this year’s event is “#EmbraceEquity.” They invited guests to speak on designated days that relate to their work title holding a Law Day, a STEM day, and a Sports day.
Lee and Williams are both interns for Gateway’s course, “Gateway to Careers,” and planning this event was an opportunity granted to them for their internships.
“The process of planning started back in December,” Williams says. “Planning Women’s Empowerment Week was an internal internship for Mikayla and I for our class, Gateway to Careers. It was important that we start planning far in advance so that we can work out scheduling and give out guests a notice so that they can fit it into their schedules.”
Law Day was held on March 6. The guest panel speakers were Heather Simmons, the Deputy Director of the Gloucester Board of Directors; Judy Schiavone, Mount Laurel Chief of Police; Christine Hoffman, Acting Prosecutor at the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office; Jessica Doheny, Mayor of Wenonah and Executive Director of Appel Farms Performing Arts Center; and Lateasha Jones, Special Victims Unit (SVU) Detective at the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office.
Schiavone and Doheny are the first women to hold their positions. During the panel, they both share takeaways from their experiences in working up to that position, as well as drawbacks they faced, especially in regards to feedback they get from colleagues and bystanders for being women who are holding an authoritative role.
“People look at me and question me a lot more than they do the men in the department,” Schiavone says.
Jones and Schiavone share similar encounters in their roles in law enforcement. They both mention being differently on the job just because they were women. Jones told a small anecdote about feeling out of place and criticized because she was a woman investigating criminal cases.
Jones told the audience that at the end of the day, one of the biggest principles she learned to live by was not to let those negative voices impact her job. She learned that the best thing to do is to be true to herself.
“The biggest takeaway from my own experience is that you don’t have to be ‘one of the boys’ to fit in,” Jones says. “Be true to yourself.”
They also talk about how important it is for women to have each other’s backs. They explain that in a world where girls are constantly torn apart, it is crucial for them to stick together. Hoffman shares an experience she had in relation to this.
“I’ve always had the courage to take on different things at my job because I knew I had someone I could call,” she says. “And I think that’s the most important thing; having a support system of people who won’t tear you down.”
The guest speakers also touch on leadership.
As the first woman to hold the position of mayor in Wenonah, one of Doheny’s biggest challenges was being taken seriously as a leader. She was faced with negative feedback and crude comments in both of her jobs as mayor and as Appel Farms Executive Director. But, she made it her goal to make people see that she is just as capable as anyone else is to do this job, and to inspire others to do the same.
“As a leader, I find ways to insert myself as a woman,” Doheny says. “I want to show that it’s not about ‘my pretty little head.’ It’s about what’s in my ‘pretty little head.’”
Doheny brought up another point that she says is one of the most important to do, which is to always pull ahead. She explains that it is key to be fearless and courageous; It is an act of leadership in itself. “Don’t ever be afraid,” Doheny says. “Always have the courage to take that next step.”
“Sign up for the tough stuff, challenge yourself,” Schiavone says. She explains that challenging oneself is an important step in taking that next step. It is encouraging in that way to prove that the job is doable, and to keep going.
Finally, the panel heavily stresses the need for self-care. “Always leave room for [it],” Hoffman says. They all explain that self-care is crucial to living a healthy, positive life, especially in places where work may not always be easy or people may not take them seriously. They emphasize that individuals have to believe in themselves and care for themselves.
“Someone might not always tell you you’re doing a good job, but you have to know you are anyway,” Jones says.
The women clarify that self-care can look like anything; meditation, exercise, reading, or even simple breathing exercises on the job. They stress that this is the single most important thing to do, because having a healthy mindset will not only improve work ethic, but they say that it will also improve the way women perceive themselves in a world where it may feel like everyone is against them.
Simmons spoke at the end of the panel about the importance of knowing the reason for doing something.
“Know your ‘why’ — what it is in your heart or soul that drives you,” she says. Simmons explains that this is vital to not only work, but to life, because that driving force is the push to keep going.
“Overall, we are very pleased with how the event turned out! [Mikayla and I] are both very appreciative of this opportunity,” Williams says.
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