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Complicate It.

Our interns have been back for several weeks. Midterms are rapidly approaching! When I head out for my run in the morning now, there’s a hint of chill in the air. We’ve recently wished our Jewish friends a very Happy New Year. It’s hard to believe, when we saw the temperature in Charlottesville reach 90 degrees every day this past week, but fall is on the way.

This year, we’re celebrating 30 years since the founding of the Women’s Center in 1989. We are also preparing to commemorate two other upcoming milestones for women at UVA that give us opportunities to look (much) farther back. Many Wahoos can tell you that the first cohort of women admitted to the College arrived in 1970 (following a court decision announced 50 years ago this week on September 30, 1969). Oft-told stories like this one help us remember key facts – and leave important ones out, too.

Next year will also bring the 100th anniversary of the Board of Visitors’ resolution to allow women to seek degrees in the graduate and professional schools (17 women enrolled in fall 1920), and the 50th anniversary of the arrival of full co-education on Grounds. Even with the addition of this lesser-known history, our view is incomplete. If we really want the full picture, we have to complicate it further.

Like every other movement for equal access, the call for women’s access to education at UVA was successful because of the number of people who fought together – and was marked by its own problems and oversights. Among the most notable: it would take 30 more years after that first cohort of white women enrolled in 1920 for E. Louise Stokes Hunter to become the University’s first black female student when she was admitted to the newly formed School of Education in 1950.

As in the wider culture, change at UVA is challenging to understand and discuss because its pace and magnitude vary so widely. Continued progress, as always, depends upon self-reflection and willingness to grow, both as individuals and as a community. One of the ways our journey at UVA mirrors a larger on-going cultural journey is that we’ve seen significant change, albeit uneven, over this decade that is so rapidly coming to a close. 

I recently attended a panel co-sponsored by the Alumni Association and the UVA chapter of the VA Network for Women in Higher Education. A number of women have stepped into high-profile leadership positions at UVA this decade, and this panel featured five of them speaking on the topic of “Strong Women, Strong Leaders.” It was a powerful morning, and the audience left inspired. For me, the most impressive aspect was the way that they built on each other’s answers, building up and amplifying one another. This capacity to share a platform with other women is a hallmark of authentic leadership.

For my readers who were not able to attend, I took notes - oh, so many notes!  A few of the leadership lessons they shared were especially relevant to efforts in which our staff and students at the Women’s Center are engaged every day, in both large and small ways. I’d like to share those with you here.

Embrace imperfection.

Jen Andrasko, President of the Alumni Association, talked about the impact a leader can have when she is willing to reveal that she is an imperfect being. Having the courage to share her own ups and downs with her team gives those around Jen permission to be imperfect, too. Paradoxically, we are more effective in owning our imperfection than if we try to hide it.

Nothing illuminates your path like hindsight. And that’s ok.

Each panelist was asked what message they would want to share with their younger self and Margaret Grundy, President Ryan’s Chief of Staff, answered in a way that addressed something that comes up often with our interns. She described how the tendency to think about careers as paths from point A to point B, and so on, can give an impression that there has to be a grand, clearly-discernable plan at the beginning. Margaret, however, wants her younger self to know that the path always makes sense – in retrospect. You may need to reach point L before you start to understand how A led to B led to C.

Never say “but.”

Gloria Graham, Vice President for Safety and Security, shared hard-won and invaluable wisdom about how to engage with folks offering you feedback: never say “but.” Replying with “but” after someone gives you feedback, she pointed out, says to them that you’re not truly listening. Accepting feedback is hard and effective leaders know that they cannot please everyone. They understand, though, the need to listen respectfully to everyone and consider their perspectives. It matters how we do our work, not just that we do it.

Be generous of spirit when you can. And unapologetic when you can’t.

Risa Goluboff, Dean of the Law School, and Pam Sutton-Wallace, CEO of the Health System, riffed off each other to perfectly encapsulate the challenges and opportunities that women’s leadership presents. Discussing what hard times have taught them, Risa observed that there are moments that call for leaders to be generous of spirit, and Pam completed the thought with her observation that in other moments organizations need their leaders to be warriors. Women, as Pam noted, are socialized to be collaborative, but sometimes leaders have to refuse that charge and make hard decisions for the good of their organizations. Such assertiveness can make people uncomfortable, but it is the bedrock of strong leadership. Leaders have to discern which moments are which and trust that extending themselves and their organizations generously when they can will help others understand when they can’t. 

At the Women’s Center, we are proud to be the keepers of beloved traditions celebrating women’s leadership at UVA. It is a joy to gather women and their allies from a wide range of backgrounds, disciplines, and generations to express gratitude for the leadership that has brought about much-needed progress and to encourage each other to keep moving forward. Annual award events and guest speakers provide a steady beat that keeps us mindful of the important lessons our leaders have to share with us. And there are times that call for something larger, too.

On October 15, we will honor Dorrie Fontaine, Dean Emerita of the School of Nursing, with our 2019 Elizabeth Zintl Leadership Award and we will be welcoming students from across the University to a lunchtime talk by Pam Sutton-Wallace on October 31. If you can connect students with this opportunity to hear from Pam about her journey as a leader in healthcare through our Beverly Cobble Rodriguez Lectureship, we know it will be meaningful and memorable for them.

We are eager to share with you exciting plans for 2020 when the whole University community will come together - to tell our story more fully, to honor pioneering UVA women in the arts, in sports, in science and technology, and to glimpse the future by engaging with the responsible citizen leaders shaping and being shaped by today’s UVA.

Please stay tuned and plan to join us a year from now in a spirit of celebration and commitment to continued growth. As fallible people striding and stumbling through an imperfect world, we have the obligation to come together to learn how to do it better.

So much of what we do at the Women’s Center involves shared effort between our own staff and students as well as those in other organizations. The research we are currently conducting to inform our 2020 plans was initially sparked by stories that several alums and colleagues took the time to share including Diane Whaley who contributed the above photo of some vintage signage still visible in Mem Gym where her office is located.  We appreciate the energy and expertise brought to our planning efforts by colleagues from across Grounds who are serving on our Planning Committee for the 2020 Symposium on Women at UVA. And we are grateful for our partners at the Alumni Association whose plans to engage alums far and wide will be an essential component of the University community’s celebrations of these upcoming milestones.

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