Before Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, set off a national debate on why more women don’t occupy positions of power, Bowdoin had its own plans to start a conversation about women and leadership.
Back in early February (a good month before Lean In was released), the Bowdoin Women’s Resource Center was set to host an inaugural Women’s Leadership Lunch with faculty, staff and the 13 female trustees who were planning to be on campus at that time. As it happened, a blizzard derailed the trustees’ travel plans and the lunch was canceled.
Not to be deterred, student-workers at the Women’s Resource Center — Laurel Varnell ’14, Emily Ausubel ’13, Jackie Fickes ’15 and Helen Conaghan ’13, with WRC Director Melissa Quinby — organized a second attempt at the lunch. Although they couldn’t gather all the trustees together, the team was able to invite more than 60 female students/campus leaders to join 14 faculty and staff to talk about women and leadership at Bowdoin.
Following a lunch catered by Dining Services, attendees split into smaller tables. Each table had a student facilitator as questions to stimulate discussion around the conditions for female leaders or burgeoning female leaders at Bowdoin.
At Table 8, facilitator Neli Vazquez ’14 asked such questions as, “Do women in leadership own their leadership at Bowdoin? What are the pathways to leadership at Bowdoin? Do you feel there has been a professor or someone on campus who has urged you to leadership?”
Leah Kahn ’15 said she appreciated having so many female leaders around her, both in the dorms and on the playing fields. “I’ve been surrounded by strong female leaders,” she said, “both in Residential Life and in Ultimate Frisbee.”
Anna Bradley-Webb ’16 said that the number of women leaders on campus has an impact on other female students. “My head proctor told me I’d be great for Res Life, and urged me to apply. Having women in leadership roles and having them help other women feel confident is one reason we have such good leadership opportunities.”
Melody Hahm ’13 credited Craig McEwen, her advisor and emeritus professor of sociology and anthropology, for convincing her to reach higher. She recounted how she would question him on whether she could do something and he would answer, “‘You can do it.’ He imparted a lot of confidence to me.”
But there are gaps on campus, according to some students, where men seem more represented than women. Guo wondered, for instance, how many of the guests invited to give Common Hour talks are women. “It would be nice to see a woman come here with [the same passion as Gerald Chertavian ’87, a recent Common Hour speaker],” she said.
Another area students questioned was student government. Earlier in the lunch, Melissa Quinby pointed out that two female students (Vazquez and Sarah Nelson ’14) were running for Bowdoin Student Government president this year, meaning the position will be occupied by a woman for the second year in a row. Dani Chediak ’13 is the current president. Chediak later pointed out that currently 12 of the 30 members of the BSG Assembly and 11 of the 20 members of the Class Councils are women.
The conversation ended on ways Bowdoin could foster more female leaders. Tasha Yektayi ’15 said the student group Bowdoin Women in Business is a good model, since its members give one another advice and support for networking, internships and careers.
Guo suggested starting a new program for female students to develop their leadership capabilities, one modeled after the Leadership Development Series that took place this year for a small group of students.
Senior Associate Dean of Student Affairs Margaret Hazlett suggested that Bowdoin should also involve men in the discussion. “How do we bring men along?” she asked.
“We shouldn’t have women-only leadership luncheons,” Yektayi answered. “We should invite men. Men have to be 100% supportive or we won’t get anywhere.”