I grew up in the remote sandhills of central nebraska, where the biggest businesses around were the cattle ranches. Strong women from pioneer stock worked the cattle and the land alongside the men. Those women were pillars of our community: they ran the local school boards, church committees, and community groups. With these modern-day frontierswomen for role models, it simply never occurred to me that there was anything a woman couldn’t do.
In graduate school, when other faculty members didn’t take me seriously, my advisor supported me and gave me some much-needed career advice. It seemed to me that because I was a young mother, some faculty members saw me as “taking up space” that could have been occupied by a promising male student. I didn’t think they could imagine that I would do more with my graduate degree than teach part-time. Upon graduating, I surprised the skeptics by being offered a higher starting salary than anyone else in my class, then relocating with my husband and two young sons to accept a faculty position at a leading university.
By the time I’d become the first woman to receive tenure at my university—and the first to be granted an endowed chair—I was officially a senior leader. Yet I still faced serious obstacles to career advancement. I assembled a “kitchen cabinet” (a close-knit group of women colleagues who provided both career advice and emotion- al support). We introduced each other to professional contacts and helped each other advance and gain new opportunities. These women expanded my access to influential leaders and a variety of key opportunities, including new jobs. They enriched my social life and empowered me to advance in my career.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from experience, as well as my own research, is that it’s crucial to pay it forward. A great way to do this is to encourage other senior leaders to sponsor high-potential employees. Acknowledging our sponsors helps to guarantee that they will sponsor others in the future.
Young women just beginning their careers often ask me how they can secure a sponsor. First and foremost, I tell them that they have to contribute—and make their contributions known. It’s not enough to be smart and good at your job; you have to let the right people know that you are smart—and capable of excelling in a bigger job than the one you have now. Let senior leaders know that you want more responsibility. Nobody’s going to notice you unless you force them to notice.
What does it take to succeed and stay competitive in your position/field?
Listening intently, reading broadly, being open to ideas and interpretations beyond what you could imagine on your own, participating actively in broad professional and social networks, and following your team as well as leading them.
Has discrimination affected you as a woman in the workplace?
How did you deal with it? Yes, and I moved on to new opportunities. If you take a broader perspective, the world is full of opportunities to seize. Move towards the future.