Given all those “firsts,” you might think I would be especially frustrated by the chilly climate or the glass ceiling that women leaders encounter. The opposite is the case. On a day-to-day basis, I am so dramatically more impressed by the windows of opportunity that have been flung open for women than by the occasionally stale air that lingers in a few rooms.
I am no Pollyanna. Despite the fact that women have outpaced men in attendance and completion at all levels of higher education, women still occupy only one-quarter of all college and university presidencies. It’s a number that has remained stagnant for 20 years, and it’s a number that bothers me. Yet as I prepare to move on from the Kenyon presidency in June, I believe the best way I can help other women is to pass on lessons learned over 35 years in higher education.
And that’s what I want to do here: reflect on strategies for women, not barriers.
In my experience, succeeding in a male-dominated world has often entailed knowing when to say no, and having the instincts to extricate yourself from a tricky situation — often through humor or through the assistance and advice of other female leaders. If you need a mnemonic device for it, you might look to the old country-western refrain of The Gambler: “Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em; know when to walk away, know when to run.”
Over my career, I’ve certainly experienced my share of troubling remarks, off-putting responses and awkward moments that have prompted me to do everything from hold to fold. Early in my presidency at Kenyon, for instance, there was a caller who, when he heard my female voice on the line, insisted that he needed to talk with the president, “GEORGE Nugent,” not his assistant. Or there was the moment when a Kenyon alumnus called me aside at a reception I was hosting in my home to ask, in a tone of camaraderie, “Georgia, don’t you think there are too many women on campus?” To this day I wish I’d had a witty response for either man, particularly the latter, who seemed entirely unaware that women were actually a minority on campus — of the faculty, the administration and, at that time, even the student body.
Humor, I’ve learned, is the equalizer that makes clear our common humanity, independent of gender. As an example, when I first sat with the executive committee of the board of Kenyon, I found that it was all male. I could have railed against this, urging that we needed to add women to the executive group. I chose a different route. Slowly looking around the room, with a big smile, I simply said: “Good morning — gentlemen.” The point was not lost. By the next meeting, women had been admitted to the group.