By: Connie J. Gores
When we were younger, many of us yearned to be older so we could drive the family car, or have a later curfew, or whatever it was that signified to us that we had arrived—that we had reached that special milestone we sought to achieve. Sometimes in our haste to move forward, though, we can take some things for granted; we can lose sight of those who came before us, or forget about those who are walking beside us or coming behind us.
Especially in the first year or two of a new position or assignment, the pace is quick and the learning curve is steep. And just when we think we do have something figured out, along comes another opportunity for us to learn something, and we have the chance to gain additional insights and experiences.
For me, one particular learning experience stands out. It occurred in the first year of my new role of university president. As a first-generation college student from a family the size of a softball team (10 brothers and sisters), I learned early on about the meaning of hard work and the importance of preparation. Throughout my life, I tried not to take anything for granted.
As my mother’s first daughter, I have always had a lot of responsibility and I have been in leadership roles from a young age. But that history and all my preparation didn’t stop me from being caught off guard. I had been invited to speak at the monthly luncheon of a group of professional women who met to network, learn, and connect with each other. Just as we were about to sit down for our meal, which was to be followed by my address, our hostess asked each of us to pause for a moment to reflect on the “historic occasion” that we were experiencing. Unsure about what she was referring to, I listened carefully to what she said next: “We have the first woman president of the university.” That was me!
Of course I was aware that I was the first woman to serve in the role, but it had not occurred to me that my presence at the luncheon would be a “historic occasion.” I was accustomed to serving in senior leadership roles, and I had experienced my share of “firsts” along the way. What I had overlooked on that particular day, with this specific group, was what my appointment as president meant to others, especially to this room full of professional women, all of whom had worked hard to get where they were. I had failed to see that each of us leaders carries with us the hopes and dreams of others; that we represent more than ourselves or our positions; and that no matter how hard we have worked or how much we have prepared to reach our goals, we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. I was also reminded of the responsibility that each of us has to reach across the room to others and to extend a hand to those coming behind us—we need to help other women on their leadership path. As we move forward, we need to reach back.
In the ACE Women’s Network, we are committed to furthering our work centered on our IDEALS of identifying, developing, advancing, linking, and supporting women leaders along their path and in the pipeline. We have made great strides, but our work is not done. We may have personally reached the goal we set for ourselves, but we must not be lulled into thinking that our work is complete; we must focus on the greater good and our responsibility to build future leaders and create opportunities for advancing other women. Our work is not complete until we reach critical mass—a point of parity in the academy—where it is not seen as historic to have a woman serving in the top leadership role of president or chancellor. So we all want to encourage our women colleagues to place themselves in searches so that reaching parity is possible.