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Women leaders speak about leadership

Jul 1 2013

In an age where over 50% of college graduates are women, women still struggle to reach higher levels of leadership in universities like Stanford. Furthermore, women faculty report having less voice and feeling less valued by their colleagues than men faculty, according to a 2008 Stanford study. The Clayman Institute's Voice & Influence Program combats this problem by empowering women faculty at Stanford to have more voice in their disciplines, departments, and public debates.

Participants recently celebrated the conclusion of this year’s Voice & Influence Program at a Women’s Leadership Dinner. The event featured a panel discussion with two experienced women leaders: Leslie Hume, who recently served on the Stanford Board of Trustees, and Patti Gumport, Professor of Education and Vice Provost for Graduate Education at Stanford.

Voice & Influence Program participants—emerging women leaders from diverse fields at Stanford—met throughout the year in networking and educational sessions designed to help them develop the tools and skills required for leadership. The program works in tandem with long-term measures, such as hiring more women and improving organizational culture, to bolster women's influence. Additionally, the Clayman Institute has launched a free, online version of the Voice & Influence Program, as the founding educational partner of Lean In.

Hume and Gumport share their experiences and offer advice for the future

At the Women's Leadership Dinner, Hume and Gumport spoke with the audience about how to attain leadership positions, the joys and challenges of such roles, and strategies to give women more voice. Shelley Correll, director of the Clayman Institute, moderated the discussion.

Correll: Tell us about your leadership journey. How did you end up in your role, what do you like about that role, and what are some of the challenges?

Hume: When I was first approached about chairing the Board at the end of 2007, I was both flattered and honored but said, “I don’t think I’m the person for the job.”I was concerned about my lack of background in business and finance. I was assured that this wasn’t a problem, that the Board had deep bench strength in this area, and that financial problems were not at the forefront of the Board agenda. Needless to say, when the market crashed the week before my first Board meeting as Chair in October 2008, the university’s finances became the main topic of the Board agenda. I quickly received an education about a host of issues that I had not anticipated.

A lot of being Board Chair is about relationships and relationship-building. It’s about working to create an environment in the boardroom where you can have candid conversations about sometimes very thorny, complex issues. We need to be open and honest, reach a consensus, and move on.

To foster this kind of environment, you must get to know your trustees individually, their interests, their passions, what talents and expertise you can harness individually and collectively for the good of the university. Stanford is blessed with an extraordinary group of trustees who are completely dedicated to the university. How can their knowledge and interests add value to the work of the university and assist the President and Provost?

Gumport: I had been serving in a leadership capacity (chair of the social sciences division) in the School of Education. I also had a vital research agenda, grants, graduate students, and teaching responsibilities. I was very busy. In fact I was so busy, when the Provost’s secretary invited me to lunch with the Provost, my instinctive reply was, “I don’t want to have lunch.” (My advice to you is: don’t say, “I don’t want to have lunch” with the Provost.)

I turned down his offer for the Vice Provost position at first. Then I realized what an amazing opportunity this is to work on something I care deeply about. I saw this as an opportunity to have impact in a new way, both immediately across the entire university and longer-term as we prepare graduate students for an uncertain future.

I like solving problems. I like making the world around us a better place, including our university and the higher education enterprise itself. It’s a great platform to be idealistic for me, and it really fits who I am. I have a strong ethos of service.

I feel like this role is a blessing, and it’s the right fit. I didn’t anticipate that after 20 years feeling very fulfilled in my faculty responsibilities. This role is a natural extension of my previous work – and an unprecedented opportunity given support from the Provost and President.

Correll: How can we move the needle on women’s leadership? What are the kinds of leadership roles that would help give women more voice in the university?

Hume: When I left the board, it was about 30 percent women. One of the things we struggled with is: what can we do to identify women who have potential to become great Board members and put them in positions where they can show their leadership ability? We have to start developing the pool of candidates for trustees early on. We strive to keep this on the radar screen in a constant, intentional way. Programs like Voice & Influence will help make a difference.

Gumport: If you think of leadership more as a state of mind or disposition, we can all lead. You can lead from the place you’re in, or you can lead in more formal roles as well. I also think we should emphasize relationship-building more as a core leadership skill. Learning how to connect with people, listen, and establish trust is critical. The more we practice, the better we’ll be when we have opportunities to step into these roles.

Don't close the door behind you—using power and influence to help others

During the closing discussion, the audience emphasized the importance of mentorship and sponsorship. Both types of relationships are important ways to advance women.

In a mentoring relationship, a more experienced mentor provides advice and guidance to a less experienced mentee. In a sponsoring relationship, the sponsor actively seeks opportunities to promote and develop his or her protégée.

In particular, the audience agreed that mentorship programs spanning disciplines would allow women to feel comfortable asking honest questions and would leverage Stanford’s strength as a highly interdisciplinary university. By providing women with connections beyond their discipline, such programs could enable women to learn more about the university and how to be successful here.

Gumport emphasized the responsibility women leaders have to help others: “One of the things I’ve learned in this job is: when you’re at the table, there’s a reason you’re at the table. Keep in mind that other people aren’t at the table. Give voice to the other people who aren’t there. Include different dimensions of diversity. It’s our responsibility. If we don’t, nobody will.”

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.