Can we stop talking about the glass ceiling?

Hillary Clinton is silhouetted by a stage light as she speaks at the University of the Western Cape about the U.S.-South Africa partnership, in Cape Town August 8, 2012. (POOL/REUTERS)
February 22, 2013

I’ve often been described as the first female fill-in-the-blank.

In 1969, I entered Princeton University as a member of its first co-educational class. Ten years later, I re-joined my alma mater as Princeton’s first female graduate to receive a full-time faculty appointment. In 2003, I became the first female president of Kenyon College. The intervening years included plenty of times as the “first woman” to do X or Y — and many, many experiences of being the only woman in the room.

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.

Particularly earlier in my career, I often found myself in the opposite situation of needing to hold my ground with the firmness of saying no rather than the lightheartedness of humor. As one of the few women in a faculty role at Brown, I was appointed to a university committee by my department chair, only to find out at the first meeting that all the other members were secretaries. I politely informed the chair that this role wasn’t appropriate for a faculty member.

In the same department, there was a female graduate student who simply wasn’t making the grade, but my male colleagues who had known her for years were reluctant to deal with the problem. As a new (and female) faculty member, I was suddenly assigned oversight for this student — whom I did not know and who was not in my scholarly field. I made clear to my colleagues that they had created this problem and it was theirs to solve, not mine.

Then when I returned to Princeton as an assistant to the president, I was asked to head up a university-wide committee on employment conditions. Yet the list of appointees surprised me. I went to the chief of staff. “Do you see anything odd about this committee?” I asked. He perused the list and said, “No, it has plenty of representation by women.” “Tom,” I said, “it’s ALL women.”

On top of that, they were all the second-in-command of their departments. I took the opportunity to make it clear that gender balance isn’t about selecting all women. I also highlighted the fact that women were all in deputy positions, not executive ones. Either the constitution of the group needed to change or I needed to walk away from its leadership. We restructured the committee.

There were times, of course, when I wasn’t so sure of how to respond to an assignment or remark that seemed inappropriate. It is in these moments that the network of women I developed over my career has helped me the most. One striking moment occurred during my tenure at Kenyon when I had brought in a number of new vice presidents and deans. As it happened, those hires were equally divided in terms of gender. Yet I received several calls from trustees expressing concern that I was only hiring women.

This still surprises me — first, because it flies in the face of the facts; and second, because it turns out I am not the only female president who has faced similar responses. Shirley Tilghman experienced the same criticism as president of Princeton, so I placed a call to her. Her advice was to hold my ground, and remember that this too shall pass. It was simple advice, but it made a huge difference to hear it from someone who was navigating the same complexities as an executive woman in academia. It wasn’t the first time I’ve used the network of female leaders I’ve developed over the years, and it won’t be the last.

Throughout my career, more often than not I have been warmly welcomed as a woman in a leadership role. Indeed, when I arrived at Kenyon ten years ago, the overwhelming reaction from students, faculty and alumni of all eras seemed to be “it’s about time.” Yes, there are lingering vestiges of a previous era — some of them humorous, others less so. But I believe the best way to deal with such issues, and to help more women get ahead, is not to focus on the barriers, or to get stuck by feeling downtrodden or oppressed. A sense of humor, a strong spine and a supportive network can take you much further.

Georgia Nugent is the president of Kenyon College.

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