We Are All Webster: Building community from many identities, owning our biases, infusing diversity with inclusion | Webster University

Women's History Month Keynote Address


Wednesday, March 28, 2018
Women's History Month Keynote Address - St. Louis Community College

Acknowledge introduction and audience and mention Sara Boyd

I am eager to share with you some elements of my personal journey to persist to leadership but also some resources that may help you as we together create more pictures of leadership by women and for women.  These Bic for Her Cristal Pens—marketed for women because of their size, color, and glittery qualities—have rightly prompted 100s of tongue in cheek reviews on Amazon.  Here’s an example:

This product gets 4 out of 5 stars from me!!! I really enjoy how feminizing these pens make me feel and overall fabulous. I'm a stay at home house wife so I obviously stay home all day. Usually when my husband comes home from work he ask me how my day was, but since nothing interesting usually happens I just say,"the usual, cleaning and cooking and such", but now I can say "I've been writing with  1915day, makes me feel power, as if i was the president of the world. The even better part about these pens is that I can take them on the go when i'm traveling with my husband and feel feminized when writing whenever I please. I can feel like a woman again!!! I can be writing my grocery list, chore lists for my children, and even writing holiday cards for the family in style. No more plain old manly bic pens, BIC FOR HER PENS UNITE!!

The reason that this product gets 4 out of five stars is that I'm hoping that this line will add more colors.

It’s good to see the humor in these assumptions and presumptions about what women can and can’t do.  We acknowledge that women have made progress since Webster’s founding in --1915—a pioneering college founded by women for women before women could vote. But we know there are still limits to the places and roles where we and others can picture women.

Why are women in the minority in the presidency when they are in the majority among students and those who achieve Ph.D? The majority of college/university presidents are white males in their 60s. That reality has persisted for many years.  In business environments, particularly Fortune 500 and 100 companies, women as presidents are even more rare.

Our expectations and imaginations for what is possible are developed from our youngest years.  Overcoming the limitations imposed by traditional gender roles requires strong and diverse role models, expansive teaching and learning, and personal perseverance.

What words did my mother use to describe me in my baby book? STRONG-WILLED

We can see it here in these two photos—long before Amy Cuddy wrote about the “power pose” or “power stance”  I had perfected it.  

When my husband and I first started dating, he called me “Crusader Rabbit” for my zeal in removing dandelions from my yard and just about anything else I take on.   I like to get things done, and I always have a sense of urgency about the work I am part of.

Music and theatre (even as a bumblebee in a daycare performance) have always been a part of my life.  Growing up in a Chicago suburb, I was fortunate to have 8 years of accordion lessons.  A piano was out of the question for our family, and Evelyn Hettinger’s School of Music provided individual lessons and an accordion band.  Here we are on a float in the Keepetaw Days Parade. I gained the ability to read music, confidence in performance, and because of the director’s peferences—we each learned not only the standard repertoire of polkas and folk tunes, we also learned classical music transcribed for accordion.  I’m convinced that starting with music, and then continuing with theatre, choir membership, and being on the speech and debate teams all contributed to skills, knowledge, and confidence to compete in what has been and continues to be a man’s world.

I grew up in our family of four—the first generation of our family to be raised outside the South—and my brother and I are the first generation to attend and graduate from college.  My parents were hard working, lacking very much formal education, but ambitious and willing to take the risks of relocating to new areas of the country to find new opportunities for themselves and for my brother and me.  After college, I answered an ad for a placement agency that promised to locate a teaching job for applicants who were willing to move.  Just as my parents, I began the first  of many times I would move for better opportunities.

Here I am in my first year as a high school teacher in Vandalia, Illinois.  With other schools across the state of Illinois, I took 12 high school seniors to London for a spring break theatre trip. From that trip, I gained a passion which continues to this day:  To travel to new place to learn new cultures, habits, geography. . .But, more importantly, to encourage others to travel.  At Webster, we open our students to the world and the world to our students.  I first learned the joy of encouraging and modeling a curiosity for the world with those seniors many years ago.

Would anyone have imagined that accordion playing girl as the president of a global university?  Would I have predicted this future for myself when I was the very green new high school teacher, teaching English and coaching the speech and debate team and directing the theatre program at Vandalia Community High School?  Like many women in these roles, my path to the presidency was indirect with many twists and turns, taking advantage of opportunities and listening to mentors’ advice about capabilities I did not see in myself.

And, like many women leaders, my life journey was shaped by personal tragedy and my response to it—in my case, the death of my first husband when he had not yet turned 30, after recurrences of cancer after surviving childhood leukemia.

What do we know about the leadership pictures we carry in our heads?   A research study reported recently in the New York Times illustrates that our pictures of leaders are male.  When asked to picture a leader, most men and women draw a man and describe the leader’s characteristics in male terms, as we can see in these slides  

I remember when my mother, Jean Powell, decided to return to the workforce.  While she had completed only 1 year of “junior college” with a focus on secretarial skills, she was math smart and clearly came to the attention of men in the bank where she worked as a teller.  This article announces the news, that after rising through the ranks in the trust department at this suburban Chicago bank, she was named president of the bank, a singular accomplishment  for this time in the banking industry.  My mother was my role model and continued to be my mentor throughout her life—she had survived and thrived in circumstances that often overlooked women, and she performed at a level that far outdistanced what her education prepared her for.  And she had a dry sense of humor about how others viewed her accomplishment.

We blocked the headline for this article, which she hated.

Can you imagine what it said?

She often laughed that this headline could just as easily have read, “Chipmunk named president”  because that outcome was as likely as a woman being named president.

When I became president at Webster, 40 years after the last women president there, I could relate.  Initially I did not appreciate being introduced as the woman president of Webster.  But now, I understand more my importance as a role model and embrace that description.  At the same time, I must be the Webster president for all members of our community, and not only women.

To close out my remarks, I want to take a few moments to recommend to you some books that I have found useful in strengthening my persistence to lead. 

They link the idea of resilience and confidence in these ways--Resilience is confidence in the face of disasters. Confidence is a choice we can all make if we can avoid the habits of hesitation, fear of failure, and the desire to do every task perfectly.  It is often the case that women only feel confident when we are perfect or practically perfect. Yet, we know from research that the confidence that comes from mastery is contagious.  If we master one task or skill or content, we are confident to try another.

--What is most important, then, is not to tell each other that we are great (although that is true!) but to encourage each other to act.


Can you picture yourself as a leader?  How can you overcome the barriers and setbacks in your way?  

I recommend any book written by Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist. But this one resonates with me particularly because it is co-authored with Sheryl Sandberg, of Lean In fame, after she suddenly lost her husband.

They write:

“Resilience is not just built in individuals.  It is built among individuals—in our neighborhood, schools, towns, and governments.  When we build resilience together, we become stronger ourselves and form communities that can overcome obstacles and prevent adversity.  Collective resilience requires more than just shared hope—it is also fueled by shared experiences, shared narratives, and shared power.”

As I was dealing with grief for my husband and trying to determine my what’s next—my Plan B—returning to school for a second master’s degree gave me a community that saw my unique adversity as young widow as a powerful narrative to help those facing their own trials and troubles.  

The ancient story of David and Goliath is the classic story of the surprising victory by the scrappy underdog, the ultimate Cinderella story, to use a March madness metaphor.  Malcolm Gladwell’s book includes this story and many others taken from history to reveal the advantages held by those seen to be a disadvantage and the disadvantage of being seen as having the advantage.

He writes:

“It was not the privileged and the fortunate who took in the Jews in France.  It was the marginal and the damaged, which should remind us that there are real limits to what evil and misfortune can accomplish.  If you take away the gift of reading, you create the gift of listening.  If you bomb a city, you leave behind death and destruction.  But you create a community of remote misses.  If you take away a mother or a father you cause suffering and despair.  But one time in ten, out of that despair rises an indomitable force.  You see the giant and the shepherd in the Valley of Elah and your eye is drawn to the man with the sword and shield and the glittering armor.  But so much of what is beautiful and valuable in the world comes from the shepherd, who has more strength and purpose than we ever imagine.”

How can we more completely tap our strength and purpose?  I  love the work originally launched by Gallup corporation to identify the strengths used by effective leaders.  From that groundbreaking work, they created a quick survey that is included with the purchase of a book, complete with analysis of your top 5 strengths.  They challenge each of us to find ways to lead from our strengths rather than the all-too-female trait of obsessing about our areas of weakness.

As a way to do that, I share my strengths list with you and with members of my team, asking that we each do that to ensure that across the team, we build our capacity to lead as a result of the diversity of our strengths. No doubt these characteristics have been honed by a lifetime of experiences—pluses and minuses—and if we are fortunate, we continue to live and work in communities that allow those strengths to flourish and to be used for the benefit of the organization.

Can you picture yourself as a leader?   The world needs women as leaders—our individual strengths, our shared narratives of experience and power, our capacity for persistence.

My wish for you is this: may you lead, where you are, and where you aspire to be, not only for yourself but for all of us.