As Women’s History Month concludes, Grace Farms is looking back at our Making Space for Women series that annually honors the integral role women play in equitable communities and the workplace, highlights progress made towards gender equity, and showcases voices of leading women who fearlessly push ahead towards innovation.
On March 9, we convened visionaries in higher education whose transformational leadership is moving education systems forward. They included Sian Leah Beilock, President of Barnard College and President-Elect of Dartmouth; Frances Bronet, President of Pratt Institute; Helene Gayle, MD, President of Spelman College; and Laura Sparks, President of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. The panel, moderated by Grace Farms CEO and Founder, Sharon Prince, discussed how women leaders are fostering inclusive education systems through space, admissions, and connections to the workforce.
When you think about the question of inclusion, what rooms have you been in? What rooms have you not been in? What decisions have been made at your workplace? Space matters. Space communicates, and the relationship between place and belonging is profound, said Karen Kariuki, Program Officer at Grace Farms Foundation, in her introductory remarks. “Space and leadership can influence social formations, cultural practices, and political actions.”
The following are edited highlights from this insightful discussion about how these leaders are transforming spaces, what paths they have taken to leadership, and why fostering more equity in education and communities around the world, not only for women but for all, is so important. (Feature photo by Melani Lust)
How Space Communicates | Past & Present
Sharon Prince: It’s going to be an exciting discussion because we have so many different backgrounds represented on this panel this evening. We’re going to start off with how space communicates and the pathways to leadership. Let’s dig into how space communicates, which is the genesis of Grace Farms. I believe that space is a lever for change and a vehicle to address our most pressing issues.
So how does space resonate with your institution Sian?
Sian Leah Beilock: I’m a cognitive scientist by training, and oftentimes psychologists think about how the mind tells the body what to do. We want to do something, and our body does it, but it turns out it works the other way too. Our body has an impact on the mind. It turns out if we smile, we can feel better; if we go and exercise that can change how we think. And it’s not just limited to our body. Cognition is in our head, but also distributed in our environment. And that’s really the idea around embodied cognition. And we now know that space has a huge impact on how we think and feel. There’s a reason why writers often look for natural environments to do their craft.
What my research and others have shown is that space really matters. And it matters also for sending signals around belonging and inclusion. So, it turns out that if you have a computer lab that typically has male pictures on the wall, women are less likely to want to take a computer class. But instead, if you put more natural pictures, pictures that connote the idea that this is a space for everyone, you change who shows up. And that’s so important because the whole idea is to get the best and brightest minds to the table.
So, it turns out that if you have a computer lab that typically has male pictures on the wall, women are less likely to want to take a computer class. But instead, if you put more natural pictures, pictures that connote the idea that this is a space for everyone, you change who shows up. And that’s so important because the whole idea is to get the best and brightest minds to the table. – Sian Leah Beilock
Sharon Prince: So, we have the research behind why it matters. And then, we also have history and what that’s communicating. Helene, can you talk about the history and the origins of Spelman and give us the story behind it and how those original intentions have taken shape now for Spelman?
Helene Gayle: Spelman was in some ways modeled after same sex women’s colleges in New England. Two women, two missionaries, went down South with the idea that they should teach women who were formally enslaved to read and to get an education. And, you know, at that time, as you said, it was kind of a revolutionary idea because during slavery it was illegal to teach people to read and to write and to get an education. And so, they had this idea that we should go to the South where there’s the largest formerly enslaved population, and particularly with a focus for women. There were already male colleges, like our brother institution next door Morehouse College that was founded in 1865. But there wasn’t a school focused on women.
Spelman was a school that started in the basement of a Baptist church. They were part of the Baptist movement that was big on educating ex-slaves. And they started with a handful of young women who wanted to read and write. There’s a lot of pictures of this old dusty basement and these young women who were so eager to get an education, to get something that had been denied to them for so long. These two women were incredibly persuasive; they talked to John D. Rockefeller, when they had the opportunity to meet him and his wife. He was very much a philanthropist and very focused on education. He also believed in doing what could be done for the formerly enslaved population. So it was that first grant from John D. Rockefeller that allowed Spelman to create the space that is now Spelman College.
Spelman was named after his wife, Laura Spelman Rockefeller. And they didn’t ask to have the school named after them, but the two women who started the school did it in honor of Laura and her parents, who were really abolitionists and had been very involved in the anti-slavery movement.
It was first Spelman Seminary, and then it became Spelman College. I loved the origin story because I think it really speaks to the change that is possible when people believe and when people have that kind of core motivation to do something that at that time was pretty revolutionary.
One of the things that has been nice about Spelman is that these original buildings that were named after the founders and some of the philanthropists, the names are still there. There’s Packard Hall and Giles Hall, after the founders, and Rockefeller Hall, and so this sense of history links with space and place. This is so important.
Sharon Prince: The origin of Cooper Union is also interesting to me, too. Laura, I’d love for you to tell us a bit about the founder’s story [Peter Cooper], which I really found fascinating for two reasons in terms of gender and race: it was open to men and women right off the bat and there was no color bar. And then also the modus operandi of how the Great Hall has become this place for change.
Laura Sparks: It’s so fascinating because I had not thought about all of the through lines that kind of run through our history and Spelman’s. There are so many interesting themes and connections. So the school was founded in 1859, but the building, the Great Hall, was actually opened in 1858. Peter Cooper, founder of Cooper Union, had almost no formal schooling himself, less than a year, but became a very wealthy man, predating many of the Gilded Age philanthropists. And I think his philanthropy really informed some of those Gilded Age philanthropists. He started a public reading room which predated public libraries. And he and Andrew Carnegie were close friends.
And I think this informed many of Andrew Carnegie’s investments in public libraries. So, [Peter Cooper] had this dream of starting an educational institution to give working class people what he never had, a high-quality education. And he started it with this public reading room. But he always had this vision of creating a school that was, in his view, equal to the best. He was incredibly frustrated that working class people did not have access to the elite institutions, the Harvards, and Yales of the world. And from the beginning it was open to people from all walks of life, no matter your gender, race, religion, socio-economic status. So, in the 1850s, when he built the building, he didn’t want his name on it. He wanted one word on it, which was union. Part of why he wanted that was this country was on the eve of the Civil War. And he truly believed that if he could get every governor into the Great Hall, that they would be able to just work it out and avoid the Civil War. That of course did not happen.
But he always envisioned the Cooper Union, not only as a school, but as a place of public gathering. The Great Hall was the largest public gathering space in Manhattan at the time; it was also the tallest building in Manhattan. And there’s some interesting engineering feats that made that possible. And it’s a space that we continue to use to this day to be a place of public discourse and civic organizing. This is where Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Right Makes Might speech, where he argued against the expansion of slavery and effectively launched his bid to the White House.
Sharon Prince: Yes. It was an early incubator, too.
Laura Sparks: Elizabeth [Cady] Stanton and Susan B. Anthony would do their work upstairs, and then they would go downstairs and organize and advocate for a woman’s right to vote in the Great Hall. Some of the earliest meetings to form the NAACP in New York took place in the Great Hall. I could go on and on, but it’s been the birthplace in many ways of some important American movements. I encourage you to come. There’s lots of programming that’s free and open to the public. You feel the weight of that history in the room. It’s quite extraordinary.
Sharon Prince: Right. I felt it when I was there early on. And now we have a third New York institution, Pratt. Frances, with your expertise and knowing all of what we just talked about, I’d love for you to add to that. What are your thoughts in terms of how space communicates and creating social change, which is your hallmark, too.
Frances Bronet: The Pratt Institute, which started 30 years later [than Cooper Union], I’m sure followed the same model. Pratt was a philanthropist [and] industrialist, who was partners with Rockefeller. So clearly there was this incredible gestalt of building the working class into a professional class. The main building, which is the first building, we also had the same mantra where we invite everybody into the space, regardless of color, creed, gender, everybody. This is an extraordinary thing.
It’s a building filled with studios. And I think that’s critical for the way that we design space, that the space can morph. We are in a crisis right now where midtowns across the country and perhaps across the world, are being emptied out. And they have a singular way of occupying them. So, what is it that we bring as people who think about embodied learning, engaged learning, occupy the space? And some of you have probably been watching me kind of look at this space while my colleagues have been speaking and thinking about why this space [Grace Farms] is so extraordinary now. It has a very different quality when it’s day and when it’s night.
We are in a crisis right now where midtowns across the country and perhaps across the world, are being emptied out. And they have a singular way of occupying them. So, what is it that we bring as people who think about embodied learning, engaged learning, occupy the space? – Frances Bronet
This great space has that ability to eliminate boundaries. Boundaries that can be in place in a moment and gone. It’s a different way of occupying that space.
When you think about space, how can you design it so you can have unpredictable ways of using it? When we think about campuses, how do we engage campuses and how do they build community? What are the opportunities to have relationships? We have campuses as opposed to a building in the city. What’s the relationship of the way our campus sits in our community? What’s the relationship of buildings sitting in the city and connecting to communities?
Sharon Prince: I would like to pick up on one thing, so you all understand what you were describing is that we paid a lot of attention to this space to create an intimate space. It seats 700, but it feels intimate, but it was so intentional because this [stage] is half the height of a Broadway stage so we can [equally] see. It’s intentional. It’s also a sense of being equal. And the space itself, breaking down barriers, creating, piquing your curiosity, all those things matter. And as you move through the spaces you feel like you belong. And this is part of what you’re starting to create now. So, this new space, Frances, tell us about your new space.
Frances Bronet: For those of you don’t know where Pratt is, it’s in Clinton Hill [Brooklyn, NY], about two blocks from the Navy Yard. It’s the fastest growing industrial, manufacturing park in the country. There are entrepreneurs there, there’s invention, there’s fashion, it’s an extraordinary place. We [recently] launched a research yard.
And it’s filled with extraordinary researchers and scholars who are doing unbelievable work that’s community-based, resiliency-based, sustainability-based. It’s an extraordinary place, mostly because it’s about community and how we learn from the manufacturing and the entrepreneurship that’s going on at the Navy Yard, and what can we do as young inventors and innovators and creatives to propel a different way of looking at things and really invent the unpredictable, right. I’ll say the same thing about space. We like to think about space as [something] that grows communities in unpredictable ways. So, there are things that we know will happen and things we have no idea can happen. The space between us, which are two very long blocks, is now being filled by artists, people like Lorna Simpson, Carol Walker, Ole Thomas.
When you think about space, how can you design it so you can have unpredictable ways of using it? – Frances Bronet
Sian Leah Beilock: That’s incredible. At Barnard, we’re building a new science building, really to help house our amazing science undergrad and graduate students and faculty. And we have a science alum right here. Laura went to Barnard. One of the things that is really coming out in our faculty and our researchers, [is] talking about space. [They] want to blow up the traditional lab where it is pretty isolated and you have your space and your benches and your equipment and your group. [We are] building open labs where different faculty across chemistry and biology are, they have their own space. But they’re coming together at the intersection of biochemistry. We have amazing work in psychology and neuroscience coming together and computer sciences infiltrated throughout, but we’re using the space to cross disciplines in a way. I think people hadn’t thought of that before. And it’s interesting to watch the scientists think about how the space changes the science they do.
Sharon Prince: On that same line of thinking, you also made some adjustments. We talked about that, the design of the laboratory space.
Sian Leah Beilock: Oh, yes. Barnard has an amazing STEM story. It’s has always been a place that produced great women scientists and doctors. In fact, at one point, Barnard was the leading producer of women who went on to get MDs over 40 years ago. Over 45% of our undergraduates now are math and science majors. And half of our class are women of color and a third are STEM majors. As we started thinking about building our new building, we realized that benches and laboratory spaces weren’t necessarily designed for women. Women tend to be smaller. So, the bench height matters. How do we make it more adjustable? We think about all these things. to create a sense of belonging that women should be leaders in these areas, and they need equipment that works for them.
Intersection of Spaces to Innovate
Sharon Prince: Incredible. Yes, exactly right. It’s also like making decisions on the spot. That’s what’s great about being in the leadership position. You can say, look, that’s not right. And change can happen. That happens all the time.
And innovation is a thread too, through a lot of the new buildings. So now you also have one that is in progress right now with Studio Gang, the preeminent woman architect. Jeanie Gang is incredible. So, then this one is about innovation in the arts. So that cross section would be really fascinating for us to hear how that has germinated.
Helene Gayle: There’s a wonderful thing about coming in and following a great leader, you get to reap the benefits of somebody else’s great thinking. So, my predecessor who had been Dean of the Tisch School, I think for 20 some years, came with a very strong emphasis on the arts at Spelman. And it really had not gotten a lot of the attention, than it had before. And so, she came in and really wanted to elevate what went on at Spelman in the arts. And as part of that, she did an incredible job of raising resources for this new building, the first new building that Spelman’s had in I think 25 years. It’s the first building that will have an opening to the community.
And it’s significant because I think we have this kind of openness to our community around us, which also says something about space and the relationship to the neighborhoods in which our institutions find themselves. But as you said, it’s innovation in the arts. And so, it will house all the performing arts, but it will also house our innovation center, our center for entrepreneurship. And it’s going to be this wonderful cross integration between arts, but also the hard kind of computer science, computational work, entrepreneurship, and innovation work. We’ve got young women in our innovation center who are looking at the face of gaming from with a gendered lens.
You know, people often think for liberal arts schools, you’re going to either be a STEM school or you’re going to focus on arts. This is a way of showing that it’s not STEM or arts, these things really go together. And just like you were talking about, I think you come up with something different when people are in that space together and have a chance to think in different parts of their brain all together. And I think the fact that we are having this opportunity to interface with our community a lot more, is also incredible and innovative.
You know, people often think for liberal arts schools, you’re going to either be a STEM school or you’re going to focus on arts. This is a way of showing that it’s not STEM or arts, these things really go together. – Helene Gayle
Sharon Prince: Exactly. So that intersection of the sciences – math and sciences and music, is something we’ve done this year. A little new and different. I mean, we’ve been integrating, and we have our initiatives, so we’re always thinking in an integrated way. We’re really excited about Beauty and Logic, a program with Marcus G. Miller, who is a professional saxophone player who brought down the house at Carnegie Hall with Jon Batiste. Marcus is also a Harvard mathematician as well.
We brought in a classical pianist last month, who is also a Google scientist. Incredible, right? So, these go together in such fascinating ways and what comes out of it is new. So, part of our DNA here is to create new outcomes. And that only happens when you are thinking in an integrative way, you know, inter-sectionally. I’m super excited about that because I think there’s so much capacity that will just happen when you’re in the same space.
The design is intentional. It’s also a sense of being equal. And the space itself, breaking down barriers, creating, piquing your curiosity, all those things matter … Part of our DNA here is to create new outcomes. And that only happens when you are thinking in an integrative way. – Sharon Prince
Helene Gayle: And that’s the way I think we’re going to solve some of the biggest challenges that we have. We put people together who are thinking very differently, out of the box, to find the kind of solutions we need.
Sharon Prince: Exactly. So, Laura in terms of innovation, you’re just not leading at Cooper, but in the world. You’re thinking about innovation in a whole new way. I like to hear how you’re doing that.
Laura Sparks: One of the key things that Peter Cooper did was to make the school tuition free for all of its students. And we continue to try to steward that legacy after a little period of tumult at Cooper Union when partial tuition was imposed. But we’re now on an ambitious path to return over a 10-year period. We’re five years into tuition free education for all our undergraduates.
Sharon Prince: Okay. Can we pause there for just a second? Because this is an incredible feat to take on. It’s incredible you’re bringing it back. This is all happening to reverse something that’s been in place since the beginning, so that’s incredible. Where are you in this work?
Laura Sparks: We’re halfway there. Over 45% of our students are going to Cooper Union tuition free. And on average, we’re covering about 80% of tuition costs for undergraduates. And we have not increased tuition for five straight years. And each year we increased scholarships a little bit more so we are well on our way. But what it’s meant is a very specific set of choices. We’re not building new buildings, right. Because the choice that we’ve made is to put all those resources into scholarships for our students, but our space still needs to change. Right. We are innovating a lot within Cooper Union as we think about all of these, not just opportunities, but I agree with Helene. Really critical needs to work in cross-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary, trans-disciplinary ways.
And what that means is that our space has to change. And so even though we are not doing that through new buildings, we’ve had to really rethink the space that we have. You know, we’re in a very dense part of Manhattan. Even if we had made different choices about our resources, there aren’t lots of places to go. NYU’s already bought up all the buildings, [laugher] and so we’ve had to think really creatively about the space that we have. We have two buildings. One is this historic building that Peter Cooper built in the1850s. We have the building that Sharon just mentioned, [41 Cooper Square built by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne and his firm Morphosis] which is a main building. So, it’s a very different kinds of architecture, very different kinds of spaces.
Really critical needs to work in cross-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary, trans-disciplinary ways. And what that means is that our space has to change. And so even though we are not doing that through new buildings, we’ve had to really rethink the space that we have. – Laura Sparks
One building is much newer than the other. And yet in both we are continuing to innovate. We actually had no space at Cooper Union that was dedicated to students from all three of our disciplines to work together. The programs had been very siloed. And what we know is that the complexity of today’s problems really demands multi-lane solutions. And so, we needed a place for students to work together, and they were so hungry for it. But, you know, we looked around people said, no, we can’t do that. We have no space. But we do have space. We just have to think of it differently. We looked at what was a sculpture workshop on the fourth floor of our building, and found another place to move the sculpture in a space that had been used for something that wasn’t relevant anymore.
We transformed what people never really thought of as a dedicated space before into a digital fabrication lab, with equipment that you can only find mostly in true industrial spaces. And for the first time, students in the arts, architecture, and engineering programs could work in the same space with the same equipment. When we started that project, somebody came to me and said but there’s no way we can do this. But two years later in the middle of COVID, we had a virtual ribbon cutting for the space.
Sian Leah Beilock: I remember you telling me about this. So, during COVID, we had lots of frantic phone calls, I think between each other, asking what the other was doing. And I remember you talking about this space.
Laura Sparks: There was no PPE to be found in New York and a couple of staff members from different parts of the institution got together and tracked down materials and designed face shields and we were fabricating them in the ACE lab. I’ll never forget I got a phone call saying we were the first ones at the Javits Center to show up with face shields. And those were all made in this space that had just been completely rethought and opened a month before we had to shut everything.
Sian Leah Beilock: I think it’s a great example of spaces changing.
Women in Leadership Positions
Sharon Prince: There’s more women in colleges now, both undergraduate and graduate. And yet, you’re among the 22% of women that are university presidents of elite universities. So, there is clearly not a pipeline issue. It’s also interesting because in the workforce, a lot of the promotions, boards, CEO positions were gained by and given to men.
There’s more women in colleges now, both undergraduate and graduate. And yet, you’re among the 22% of women that are university presidents of elite universities. So, there is clearly not a pipeline issue. – Sharon Prince
Sian Leah Beilock: I oftentimes think we bring biases to the table in terms of how we think about how someone will succeed, how they actually come into leadership positions, and also whether women are suited to them. This is not just from society in a sort of a systematic way. We do this in an individual way. Women are often less likely to apply for a job unless they have all the credentials that are listed. But men will apply if they have 50%; women who get a B in a class think that they can’t go on to the next class and men will go on. We see it from the individual and then from the system that we’re in. But moving back to the space issue. One place where I’m really worried about women in the workforce is in terms of remote and hybrid work.
I think we often talk a lot about remote work being great for women. That’s a statement that’s often made. They can do other things and also be able to be present at work. But I think there’s a real negative consequence associated with this idea that will lead to success for women.We know women do 80% of the childcare and elder care work at home care. This is just on average. It might be different in your household, but that’s a lot. And if people are electing, do I go into work or not? We know who’s going to elect to be in the room, those who don’t have to do 80% of the care. This means men are electing to the room. And when people are face-to-face, that’s when they have side conversations and that’s when this creativity happens. When people are thinking about promotions, they’re thinking about the people they just had these conversations.
And so, unless we’re thinking really systematically about how people come to work, and I’m not saying we’re going back to a five-day work week, but thinking about the two days or three days that companies are all together and off their zoom, but working with each other, we are going to set ourselves back in terms of the progress we have made. We still have a lot more to make in terms of women being successful in the workforce. If you are not there in terms of those conversations, when it comes time to think about what’s next, we really will not be advanced.
Francis Bronet: I want to come back to embodied work. Also, because what we do in our design studios, our laboratories is embodied work. You’re working, you’re physically actually moving. You’re not just sitting at the screen all the time. And there is something valuable about that. I think those of us who have learning practices, which actually are physical and not just one modality, I think we can attract people who are more active, more engaged, across the spectrum, gender.
Design for Gender Equity to Bring More Women into STEM
Sian Leah Beilock: At Dartmouth, where there is the Thayer School of Engineering, which was the first engineering school in the country to achieve gender parity at the undergraduate level. It is the design, the human design center, that being able to get in there and do engineering that allowed women to think that they could do it. So, you don’t get weeded out in the calculus class or the class that’s not really related to doing something. And that is one of the hypotheses for why Dartmouth has been so successful in bringing gender parity to engineering.
It is the design, the human design center, that being able to get in there and do engineering that allowed women to think that they could do it. – Sian Leah Beilock
Sharon Prince: Designers amongst us: How are you thinking about these issues?
Laura Sparks: Coming back to Frances‘s point about creating these spaces, if the culture isn’t there to support it, it goes nowhere. And I think among our students, it’s quite easy, right? They’re so hungry for this. And I think faculty and others, it’s been all about the processes and building an intentionality into the process. Our faculty who are going to be guiding these students in this more innovative work, they have to be at the table. How do you get them to the table? By incorporating them into the design process. Because they are then building relationships and feeling invested in the space.
I think until that happens; the students can only take their work so far. But what we see now as we have, we have built into every class some kind of cross-disciplinary experience for faculty and staff. Coming back to the engineering piece, I think across engineering, architecture, and art, but particularly focused on engineering and architecture, this idea of really thinking about the human experience in engineering is what changed it. When I got to Cooper Union, we had 19% women in our school of engineering. And you know, I simply asked the question, why is that? And the responses that I got were, you know, don’t worry, that’s the national average. My response was, okay, Cooper Union has never sought to be average in anything. Why would we seek to be average?
So, we started looking at what do we need to do. And we have an incoming class that crossed the 50% mark for women in engineering. And what were the changes? The changes were how we talk about the work. How do we communicate about the whole point of engineering, which is to make the world a better place.
When I got to Cooper Union, we had 19% women in our school of engineering. And you know, I simply asked the question, why is that? And the responses that I got were, you know, don’t worry, that’s the national average. My response was, okay, Cooper Union has never sought to be average in anything. Why would we seek to be average? – Laura Sparks
Sian Leah Beilock: I think that’s so important. If anyone’s been paying attention, we are about to embark on the most monumental changes in how we develop engineers in the U.S., the CHIPS [and Science Act]. The semiconductor industry, by the way, is 70% men. We need to develop hundreds of thousands of engineers to do what we’re setting out to do with the CHIPS Act. That can’t just be done by men; it has to be done by women as well. We have to talk about how engineering and being in these design spaces is about making the world a better place. We have to change who’s coming into [these spaces].
I think we all spend time with leaders of industry who say, we can’t get enough engineers, right? Where are they? And part of it is this, we have excluded half the population by the way we talk about engineering, by the way we construct spaces for engineering. And I think a lot of that is changing. But one of the things that I said to our dean of engineering was okay, great, you hit the number, but what are you doing to make sure that our women feel welcome in this school of engineering? And that’s about space, that’s about groups, that’s about culture setting, that’s about language. We need to make sure that this is a welcoming environment. It’s one thing to drive your numbers up, but if nobody’s happy or wants to stay in the profession, it doesn’t matter.
Helene Gayle: I like your point about the language and women resonating with it to solve a problem. I think that women tend to think more about what’s my purpose. How is this helping? How is this creating something that makes a difference, solves a problem? And I think that’s a language that really does invite.
Sian Leah Beilock: True, women tend to think about careers in which they are having impact and meaning.
Laura Sparks: We have to think about growing the pool [of those that will eventually become applicants to our schools]. And that starts very early. That starts in third grade, fourth grade as girls are studying math. It happens in middle school as people start tracking in math, it happens in high school when students start to opt out of the more advanced math classes because they think they’re not doing as well as their male counterparts.
Sian Leah Beilock: And this is some of my research. Part of what I study is choking under pressure, performance under pressure, but I’m also specifically interested in the anxiety that people have around math. You don’t hear highly intelligent people walking around saying, I’m not a reading person. But you hear people all the time saying, I’m not a math person. And women tend to say this more than men. And we have shown that it starts as early as kindergarten. And one of the reasons it starts so early is because of the adults around the girls. So, if I was going to ask anyone in here, what college major has the highest level of anxiety about math, what would you say? Any guesses?
It turns out that education majors have the highest level of math anxiety of any college major. There’s something very homogeneous about education majors. Does anyone know what it is in the U.S.? It’s 95% women. My work has looked at the impact that putting women who are anxious about math has on the classroom. And what we’ve shown is that for young girls, especially when you are in kindergarten or first grade, and you go through a year of math with a teacher who’s anxious about her own math ability, not only do you learn less math, but you start endorsing the stereotype that boys are good at math and girls are good at reading. And we get this by telling the kids to draw a picture of a kid who’s good at math and a picture of a kid who’s good at reading. And what we find is that when girls are in classrooms with teachers who are anxious about math, they start thinking it’s not for them. This happens early. And we have to both change how we’re equipping and preparing our teachers in the classroom, but continuously send a signal as parents, as adults, that math is not something you’re endowed with. It’s something that you learn and something that you can get better at. And that there is no biological reason that women and girls should be any less successful in math than boys.
Sharon Prince: It’s so true. It’s great to see that angle though too, about not only the space, but who’s leading. And the signals you are giving to kids, right?
Helene Gayle: I’ll just add to that. For both of us who attended single-sex institutions, I think that’s is also an important role for women’s colleges because I talk to young ladies all the time who say, I come to the school and all I have to do is be a student. I don’t have to worry about the competition. I don’t have to worry about men belittling me or even second guessing my capabilities.
Laura Sparks: There is something [to an institution that focuses on women] that is really effective. I just had this conversation with a 16 or 17-year-old, a junior in high school, whose mother said, can you talk to her about Wellesley? That’s my alma mater. When I got there, I immediately realized that so much of what had drawn me to it was specifically related to the fact that it was a women’s college.
I’ve been in community development, I’ve run a foundation. I’ve been in large financial services institutions trying to make access to capital, which is important in this world … Then I had this incredible opportunity to come to Cooper Union to bring all these disparate experiences of trying to understand [challenging] financial situations. – Laura Sparks
But I do think there is something to this idea that you just strip away a whole layer of stuff. And you actually focus on some of the core reasons why you’re there. And I think there is something hugely empowering about that. I still remember how influential it was to show up. I had just looked at another school and was so confused by the fact that there were so many students in the classroom and that there were like 10 guys lined up that were reading the newspaper, reading a magazine, listening to music. And then I went to Wellesley and there were 20 women in the science class completely engaged with the faculty member. Something about that just clicked. As we think about spaces and the tone that we set in them and the way that we set up the ability for people to interact in them, it’s critical to how learning takes place.
Sian Leah Beilock: And it goes back again to the people. People often ask me, is there some special sauce in a women’s college? I think there is. But a lot of that is about the ingredients. What’s the mechanism? I’m a scientist. So, one thing that happens at women’s colleges, this is true at Barnard, and I’m sure it’s true at Spelman and Wellesley, 70% of our faculty are women. This is true in the sciences as well. Dartmouth, for example, is almost at gender parity for their faculty in engineering. We have to push that. Another thing that happens at women’s colleges is that you debunk and constantly interrogate stereotypes. We can do that everywhere.
Pathways to Leadership
Sharon Prince: So true. Besides creating these amazing spaces, one thing that I know people are interested in is your pathways to leadership. This is a whole separate turn. So, do we have another hour? No, I know. So, I am going to start with you Laura.
Laura Sparks: Well, leadership, it’s been really circuitous. I guess I’ll summarize it with an anecdote. I went to Wellesley 100% convinced that I was going be a doctor. I grew up in a medical household. It was the way I was going to have a positive impact on the world. I wrote all my college essays about it. I knew what subspecialty I was going to be. And then I went to a liberal arts institution that forced me to take a variety of different things. And in one semester I took a philosophy class and an econ class and it just blew my mind wide open. And I realized that there were so many different ways to impact the world in a positive way. And that’s how I’ve tried to live out my career. My father, who was a physician, thought it was a really great idea that I was going be a philosophy major when I had planned to go to medical school because that was going to make my application really distinctive [laugh]. And then I told him that I wasn’t going go to medical school. And he said, what the hell are you going to do with a philosophy degree? And now every time I get a great new job, he looks at me and he smiles, and he says, ‘what are you going do with that philosophy degree [laugh]?’
But I think that the philosophy I’ve tried to have is to just go when there’s a great opportunity to do something that matters in the world. And that can take lots of different forms. I’ve been in community development, I’ve run a foundation. I’ve been in large financial services institutions trying to make access to capital, which is important in this world.. Then I had this incredible opportunity to come to Cooper Union to bring all these disparate experiences of trying to understand [challenging] financial situations. And then try to put that towards a mission that I cared deeply about. My father was a first-generation college student, never could have gotten an Ivy League education without a full scholarship. That has had a profound impact on the opportunities that I have had and that my sisters had. And so, when the chance came up to try to write the ship at Cooper Union and put it on a path back to full tuition scholarships, I jumped at the chance. And it’s been phenomenal.
Sharon Prince: That’s really incredible. Okay. Frances.
Frances Bronet: I had the completely opposite experience. I spent my entire life trying to recover from not having humanities and social sciences background. I already told you I was an architect. I did architecture and engineering at the same time with a business degree. I grew up in a very, very poor working-class family. My parents were minimum wage workers all their lives. We were a Holocaust survivor family. I was going to be a secretary and [I was told] don’t tell anybody you’re smart because you’ll never get married. That was the message in my house. But I was with smart kids and I went to school. I’m Canadian. So, school was already close to free. It was $800 to go to McGill. It was impossible to go to McGill if I weren’t on a full scholarship. The fact that I wasn’t giving money to my parents by going to school was already problematic.
So, I did all these professional degrees. Also, if you’re already going to college, why aren’t you going to be a lawyer, an accountant, or a doctor? And so, I thought architecture just seemed exotic. I happened to be good in science, I was also good in drawing and art. But when I was 17 and somebody asked me what I wanted to do, of course, I always wanted to be different. So, I said, I want to be a lunar architect. I had no idea what that was.
I also said that I wanted to be the head of a think tank. And I think ultimately by becoming the president of university, I have a pretty linear career. I was a faculty member. I was an associate dean, a dean, an acting provost, a provost, a president. So that looks like a very linear trajectory. But I crossed over from discipline to discipline and built a lot of interdisciplinary programs. I will say that probably my biggest claim to fame was that I could recognize that all the people around me were much smarter. And I think that’s the other thing that we do as leaders, is we look at our students, our faculty, our staff who are extraordinarily bright in whatever way they manifest it. When you put them together something extraordinary emerges. That is really what we do. Ultimately the fantasy that I would be in a place where I could see how people could get together and something could happen. Something magical.
And so, I thought architecture just seemed exotic. I happened to be good in science, I was also good in drawing and art. But when I was 17 and somebody asked me what I wanted to do, of course, I always wanted to be different. So, I said, I want to be a lunar architect. I had no idea what that was. I also said that I wanted to be the head of a think tank. And I think ultimately by becoming the president of university. – Frances Bronet
Sharon Prince: That’s amazing, it really is. And it’s so true.
Helene Gayle: I’m in the circular, non-linear group [laugh]. I was fortunate to go to Barnard largely because Barnard did have such a focus on pre-med. I ended up pre-med. I didn’t come to college to be pre-med. I came to college to liberate all oppressed people. That’s what I was going to major in. I grew up in a time when social change was very much a part of our society and I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. And actually, I started out as a psychology major and thought I would go and do a Ph.D. in psychology. I thought medicine would give me perhaps a more tangible way in which I could make a contribution to society.
So, I went to medical school and during medical school I started thinking about this blend of population and looking at not just your patient as an individual, but really thinking about your patient as a community or perhaps even a nation or the world. And so, I started thinking about public health. I did my public health degree while I was in medical school. Then went on to pediatric training and wanted to hedge my bets a little bit. So, I said, okay, I’ll go to Center for Disease Control, which has a really good training program in public health so I could get some practical experience in public health. I went for a two-year training program, stayed for 20 years. And, you know, being at CDC gave me the opportunity to do the other part of what I really wanted, which was to be global and really think about how we can look at some of the global inequities that we face in health, wealth, and equity overall.
I grew up in a time when social change was very much a part of our society and I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. And actually, I started out as a psychology major and thought I would go and do a Ph.D. in psychology. I thought medicine would give me perhaps a more tangible way in which I could make a contribution to society … Then I got a call, never thought about being a college president … Then I started thinking that if I could take all these different disparate experiences that I had and give that to the next generation of young black women who have made that choice to want to change the world, why not? – Helene Gayle
And so I did a lot of work in global health. I did much of my work in HIV, which then took me to the Gates Foundation, right at the time when they were starting their global health programs and particularly focusing on HIV and AIDs. Anybody who knows anything about HIV realizes that it’s this confluence of social factors as well as medical factors. People who are at greatest risk for HIV often are at risk because of their broader societal issues. And we now talk about the social determinants of the health, the fact that it is those social factors that often influence one’s health outcomes, even more than access to medicine. So that kind of got me into the more looking at things from a bigger lens of equity and inequity.
I ended up running a global nonprofit that focused on reducing extreme poverty with a focus on empowering girls and women as the best way in which you can make a difference. That then led me to focus after doing that globally, doing that kind of the same, local economic development. Then I got a call, never thought about being a college president. It was a school whose motto is making a choice to change the world. I’d known Spelman, had relatives who had gone to Spelman, and I always admired it. Then I started thinking that if I could take all these different disparate experiences that I had and give that to the next generation of young black women who have made that choice to want to change the world, why not?
Sharon Prince: And thankfully you did. You can see it’s incredible. You can see how all your backgrounds lead to where you are now. There’s a common theme here.
Helene Gayle: I think for all of us, some may have had very linear, but I think one of the things that I always think about careers there’s always a through line. And even though it may sound like you went here and you went there, there’s generally a through line. Because I think careers are really all about how you find your sense of purpose and your sense of meaning. And if you use that as your barometer, you will continue to make choices that may not make sense to everybody else, [laugh], but definitely does make sense to you.
I think for all of us, some may have had very linear, but I think one of the things that I always think about careers there’s always a through line … Because I think careers are really all about how you find your sense of purpose and your sense of meaning. – Helene Gayle
Frances Bronet: But there is another thing that we didn’t talk about, the issue of what else is going on in our lives at the same time. So, what do our personal lives look like? And what do you need in order to make this happen? Because it’s not easy. It is in fact the whole village to get us to where we are now. That might be best friend, a family member, a parent.
Sian Leah Beilock: I would say just another through line is that we all took opportunities that we weren’t expecting when they came. And I think that’s a really important one. You can have everything planned out but you need to be willing to step off a cliff or go in a different direction and seeing yourself there. I see that is important in all different leaders. I had no idea what I wanted to be early on in life. When I was maybe seven or eight, I thought I wanted to be a jockey, but my grandfather told me I was already too tall. And I remember I cried.
I went to college. I had seven different majors my first year. I had no idea what I wanted to do. And so, I decided, well, I’ll just go to law school because I come from a family of lawyers. And my mom spent that next summer taking me out to lunch with every unhappy lawyer.
She knew if she told me not to go to law school, I would most definitely go. But it wasn’t that she didn’t want me to be a lawyer. She helped many of my friends go to law school. But she wanted me to explore what was out there and what different career paths were. And it was around that same time that we also went to a panel like this of women academics. And one of the scientists on the panel ended up winning a Nobel Prize later in life. But what she talked about that just struck me was that her entire career was full of failures, failed experiments, not getting the right answer, or having a hypothesis. And it was okay that it didn’t work. And I loved this idea that you could have a career of failures [laugh].
I would say just another through line is that we all took opportunities that we weren’t expecting when they came. And I think that’s a really important one. You can have everything planned out, but you need to be willing to step off a cliff or go in a different direction and seeing yourself there. – Sian Leah Beilock
So, I started looking at science and I fell in love with cognitive science as a discipline where you could actually study yourself and how one succeeds. I went on to get my Ph.D. and became a professor. And it soon became clear to me as I started looking not only at individuals, but at companies and how they worked together in organizations. I hadn’t really thought of that. I had a big lab, I had my department, but it hadn’t really occurred to me that I was also in an organization. And I think something else that’s probably true of all of us is we had people who championed us along the way. And it was around this time that I got elected at Chicago to a group of 12 faculty that had lunch with the president and provost every two weeks and advised them this is shared governance. I was the only woman; I was the youngest by probably 30 years. And I was extremely pregnant.
I voiced my opinion in a room and then one day he asked, have you thought about administration? And I said, well, how do I get your job? And he kind of laughed. But soon after I got opportunities to go work in the provost office to go work for the president. And then opportunities came. I wasn’t looking for the Barnard position and I fell in love with the institution. And Dartmouth came along and I’ve fallen in love with Dartmouth. And I think it’s about taking those opportunities when you least expect them, thinking about what’s meaningful to you and just going, jumping.
Sharon Prince: And saying yes and such amazing stories as a result of saying ‘yes!’ I wish we had more time but we’re going to have to wrap but I want to thank you all. This has really been an incredible day to have all four of you here. Thank you for making the time. And now everybody else, you’re all charged up to go change the world just as they all did.