Women in Leadership Initiative charts ambitious course for women's future at WVU

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Jennifer Knight, a surgeon for the West Virginia University Health Sciences Center, works in a profession where women continue to be a significant minority. But she recently discovered a source of support, mentoring and career development right here on campus.

In 2012, Knight was asked to join the Women in Leadership Initiative, a pilot project developed by Provost Michele Wheatly and P.I. Reed School of Journalism Dean Maryanne Reed.

In the Initiative, she became a part of a small group, or pod as it’s known, to discuss leadership challenges, learn from mentors and chart her own journey through leadership. The Initiative is unique in higher education in that it's homegrown and responds directly to WVU's needs. Last year, it was one of a few dozen programs nationwide.

"This experience for me was revolutionary," Knight said. "As a member of a STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] field, access to a large community of capable and vibrant women is limited, and this experience allowed me to broaden that access.

"Beyond the networking and interactive element, the experience also allowed me dedicated time to think about and develop my career and offered the opportunity for me to aid others in their development as well."

This is what Wheatly and Reed had hoped for when their own professional development prompted them to bring about positive cultural change at WVU.

In 2011, after Reed reached her five-year mark as dean, she attended the Women's Leadership Forum at the Harvard Business School. There, she was empowered, came to understand the importance of charting a leadership path and came back with excitement that she shared with Wheatly, who had been to a Harvard program years before.

For Reed, the most valuable aspect of the Harvard forum was participating in a small group where feedback and true listening helped further the members' leadership development.

"Sometimes we do these jobs, but we don't think about the bigger picture, what it means to be a leader and all of what that entails," Reed said.

After she returned, Reed and Wheatly soon founded the Initiative with the help of other female leaders at WVU.

"I believe I have a very important role here," Wheatly said. "[President] Jim Clements gave me the opportunity to be provost here—a STEM woman. And what I want to do with the power and influence that I have at this stage in my career is make it better for those who follow—bringing people up the ladder of success."

Like Knight, Jena Martin is in a field historically dominated by men, and she's African-American. The associate professor in the WVU College of Law said that it was the nurturing environment of the initiative that helped her most.

"The Initiative was incredible at placing me within a supportive, positive and encouraging community that helped to celebrate my achievements and work with me through challenges," Martin said. "They have increased the incredible sense of community that I already felt as a faculty member within my own College."

Since the program began two years ago, nearly 70 women have systematically learned to support each other through coaching techniques, reflective listening, the informal networks they've created and their drive to pass on what they've learned.

Lisa DeFrank-Cole, director of the Leadership Studies Program at WVU, said that the response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive. And she's positive about the Initiative, as well.

"As a woman who studies leadership and wrote a dissertation about it for my doctoral degree, I am really excited to know that this is happening on our campus," DeFrank-Cole said.

That's been the response from outside the University, too. DeFrank-Cole and Melissa Latimer, director of the WVU ADVANCE Center and professor of sociology, went to a leadership conference this summer and discussed the formation of the Initiative.

They were met with interest in this homegrown program to address an internal need.

While consultants assisted in getting the coaching phase off the ground and preparing WVU staff to lead future phases, the ongoing work of determining where the program goes and how it operates all happens at WVU.

Currently, the participants from the first two years meet at a monthly provost's breakfast and discuss effective strategies for improving women's leadership at WVU. In the spring, the next group will be brought into the fold.

The need for this type of program continues to be demonstrated, organizers say.

"Data show there is a dearth of women leaders in higher education particularly at the level of dean, president and provost," Reed said.

They all agree it's better for higher education in general and WVU in particular to have more women in various roles. The Initiative also directly ties in to the University's 2020 Strategic Plan for the Future by fostering diversity and an inclusive culture.

Wheatly believes it's particularly a signal to parents that their daughters can thrive here. And in a time where the value of innovation and research is prized, gender diversity must increase, she said.

"Women have got so much innate capability, and women are intuitive innovators, and we've just got to have women doing better," Wheatly said. "It helps everybody including men and society in general because women of course are the first educators of children."

Knight believes the Initiative has that capacity to improve the future.

"The positive effect from this program is far-reaching," Knight said. "The obvious effect on recruitment and retention of capable female faculty, and then as a result students, is easy to recognize. But more than that, developing an environment where women's professional development is encouraged and expected will change the future of the University."

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