Bettina Drake of the School of Medicine is an expert in epidemiology, prostate cancer and community outreach. But when it came to leadership, Drake knew she had more to discover. That’s why she embraced the opportunity to join the Women Faculty Leadership Institute (WFLI), an innovative cohort program that has propelled many senior women faculty into leadership roles at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Managing conflict, negotiating, understanding the operations of the institution — those skills aren’t typically taught in graduate school. What we learn often comes from observing others,” said Drake, professor of surgery in the Division of Public Health Sciences at the School of Medicine and associate director of community outreach and engagement for Siteman Cancer Center. “However, to become an effective leader, these skills should be studied. At WFLI I was able to study what effective leadership looks like and how to apply those skills in my daily work.”
A member of the program’s second cohort, Drake was one of 18 female faculty members selected to meet for five days over five months in 2017. She learned from national experts and university leaders, honed new skills through role playing exercises and consulted with a career coach who helped her reflect on her goals.
“A common thread throughout the process was probing what we wanted to accomplish in the future. For me, that was bridging epidemiology and the community,” said Drake, who was appointed as one of Siteman’s associate directors in 2018.
“Having dedicated time to think through, and a cohort of colleagues to hone my short- and long-term goals, helped prepare me for this role at Siteman where I serve as an intermediary between Siteman investigators and the community members it serves.”
Recruiting, training, supporting and promoting female leaders is a top priority at Washington University. In the past decade, the percentage of women on the University Council has doubled from 23% to 56%, and the percentage of tenured female faculty has increased by 21%.
Programs such as the WFLI are one reason why, said Adrienne Davis, vice provost and the William M. Van Cleve Professor of Law in the School of Law. She and Tonya Edmond, professor and associate dean for social work at the Brown School, designed the program to address two areas: challenges common to women, such as how to have difficult conversations, manage decision fatigue and negotiate strategically; and challenges common to higher education leaders, such as how to decipher university budgets and manage shared governance structures.
“You can’t equate intelligence or scholarly accomplishment to leadership skills,” Davis said. “And it’s especially challenging for faculty members to gain those skills at a university, given how universities are organized. Faculty members may have deep expertise in hiring colleagues and leading classrooms, but unless you are a department or center head, your leadership experience is fairly flat. It’s not like working at a big company or the military where people are promoted through the ranks.”
Davis said another goal of WFLI is to provide female faculty a peer network that provides ongoing coaching, mentoring and community. Drake said she is keeping up with WFLI participants through the program’s summer book club. This summer’s selection: “Dare to Lead” by Brené Brown was recommended to WFLI by Chancellor Andrew Martin.
“I have learned so much from my peers,” Drake said. “It was terrific to hear from women, all with different backgrounds, about their experiences — what they’ve done right, what they wish they could do differently, how their choices impact their personal lives and their families.
“Our conversations aren’t specific only to women but it is nice to have these discussion among women in an environment that always feels safe and supportive.”