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Viewpoint: Keep pushing for change for our daughters

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As chairwoman of the Board of Trustees I preside over fifteen individuals who provide the strategic guidance to Delaware State University, America’s most diverse, contemporary Historically Black University. Appointment to that post in 2018 was the proud culmination of my career in the public and private sectors, and I am thankful to then-Governor (now fellow Trustee) Jack Markell for the opportunity to serve the cause of educational equity for all.

That board includes eight of Delaware’s most accomplished and foresighted women, widely respected career educators, private sector executives, and a decorated military veteran. . Alongside seven male peers, they steered DSU through COVID-19, the historic Wesley College acquisition, and unprecedented enrollment growth, a story increasingly well-known throughout Delaware.

Dr. Devona Williams

They are living proof that talented, and highly qualified women in boardrooms and c-suite strengthen the institutions that they serve, open new opportunities, and provide role models for younger women. They confirm that gender no longer has to be a glass ceiling constricting the talents of our sisters, and daughters.

But even at DSU it wasn’t always that way.

Former Indian River Superintendent Lois Hobbs and I were the only woman among thirteen men in 2012. At an HBCU with 60% and higher female enrollment, there had never been more than a token handful of women trustees.

Being assertive (some might have said, “pushy”), I asked why.

The men responsible for appointing half of their board’s membership said they didn’t know any other qualified women. If I wanted more women on the board, they said, I should go find them.

I probably sighed in annoyance. For years in Delaware’s corporate c-suites it’s been primarily the responsibility of women who “made it” to bring others along, and not an overall organizational priority to establish gender equity. From the Reagan White House to DuPont, to three decades running my own consultancy, I’d heard it before.

I’ve often been either the token woman or person of color (or both) in the room, and by even asking the question I threatened a male-dominant status quo.

It wasn’t difficult to find those women. In Delaware everybody knows everybody else. We laugh at the idea of six degrees of separation.

Next came the second line of male resistance: “We don’t know these women.” I started discussing the limiting nature of “good old boy” networks and their impact on women seeking leadership positions.

I don’t intend to paint my male colleagues as particularly short-sighted or singularly resistant to change, but they embodied our society’s inertial resistance to social change.

When confronted with their implicit biases, however, they were willing to try. Over the next few years, as vacancies occurred, we jointly identified and welcomed so many new female candidates that they now constitute the board’s majority. Unsurprisingly, the board’s culture evolved in a more collegial and inclusive direction.

That’s how DSU elected its first female chairwoman of that board six months before appointing Dr. Mishoe as the first woman President of the University, and — two years later — Dr. Saundra DeLauder as the first woman provost.

Proud as I am of this successful experiment in inclusion, it remains a cautionary tale for women aspiring to leadership in similar spaces.

Despite unparalleled access for you to leadership positions compared to any other time in our nation’s history, implicit barriers remain. Upon reaching the top floor, you will usually be outnumbered, faced with skepticism, and must resolutely campaign for gender equity in senior leadership.

The good news is that it’s happening more broadly across America. By continuing the work our daughters will be able to devote their full energy to leadership and change, not just securing a token seat at the table.

Dr. Devona Williams is chairwoman of the DSU Board of Trustees and the founder and CEO of Goeins-Williams Associates (GWA), a successful consulting business designed to help organizations achieve greater productivity in strategic work environments.

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