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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