This past March we celebrated women’s leadership at the ACE State Chairs Leadership Conference via the theme Lifting as We Climb. I had the pleasure of helping plan the conference as well as serving on a panel of presidents. Since becoming the first female president of Furman University (SC) in 2014, I have been asked several times to share my path to the presidency. Many times it is in an academic environment, but businesses and nonprofits have been interested as well. I presume the rationale for such invitations is that the more other women hear about my path (and that of the many other female presidents who share their stories), the more they can imagine themselves in such a role. I also believe seeing women presidents in person makes us seem more real or perhaps, more approachable.
For the presidential panel session at the conference I suggested this prompt: “Presidents always seem so put together—your speeches are inspiring and seem effortless, you offer words of wisdom, you tend to deal with difficult situations without being ruffled. [That sentence was to be read in a tongue-in-cheek manner.] While we all want to do our jobs with excellence, sometimes presidents can create an illusion that they’ve always been ‘presidential.’ Younger employees, then, have a hard time imagining themselves in such roles. So, I want each of you to tell us one thing about you to make you seem a little more normal than people might expect you are.”
A few years ago, I decided to interject some personal items into my journey speech for the precise reason of appearing to be a normal person who had a job to do that also required balancing responsibilities as a wife and mother. So I told the group that I don’t make my bed. Of all the things people who were there that day continue to mention remembering from that speech, not making my bed is at the top of the list! I should probably work on having a more interesting life.
The theme Lifting as We Climb suggests there is more to do than just tell our stories. Rather, “lifting” is an action word that requires us to do for others. At Furman, we started a Women’s Leadership Seminar that is aimed at mid-career employees. Through the various seminar sessions, participants learn about university operations and skills needed as they gain more responsibility. On an individual level, I’m always willing to meet with people who want career advice, but I’ve come to realize that’s not enough. So now I’ve started deliberately reaching out to younger faculty and staff who, by virtue of their good work, are identified as up-and-comers. My goals are to establish a relationship, share the leadership traits that I’ve observed in them, listen to their career aspirations, and challenge them to think about future opportunities for leadership. Doing this for early-career employees allows them to be on the lookout for opportunities that can help them develop their leadership skills. Of course, I need to help make some of those opportunities available.
Increasing the number of women in the academic C-suite requires intentional effort from all of us. ACE’s commitment to Moving the Needle was music to the ears of the ACE Women’s Network Executive Council. Now, let’s all get lifting.
Elizabeth Davis, President, Furman University