PROVO, Utah — As a young BYU student, Alison Davis-Blake remembers sitting in a class with only a few other women, bemoaning the lack of females studying economics and math. "The faculty member said, 'Well, you're pioneers. You're doing a good service, blazing a trail,'" Davis-Blake recalled. "I remember thinking, 'I don't want to be a pioneer. That's hard.'"
Yet, throughout her schooling at BYU and in various faculty and administrative appointments now culminating in her recent promotion to be the first female dean at the prestigious University of Michigan Ross School of Business, Davis-Blake has continued to set an example and defy stereotypes.
"I'm a reluctant pioneer," she said with a laugh. "But I'm growing more comfortable with that role because someone has to be first. It's not because I desire to be first, but through accidents of history I've been first a number of times, and I find that creates important change."
As a female business school dean, Davis-Blake is part of a small, but growing, group of women leaders who are changing the image of academic leadership.
In 2009-2010, 17.6 percent of business school deans were women, from the more than 600 schools accredited by the AACSB International. The school year before, women comprised 16.9 percent, and in 2007-2008 the percentage was 15.5 percent.
"There's a growing acceptance all the time of women as leaders," Davis-Blake said. "but it's not something where there's a long history. The fact that Business Week could write about me, that I made history twice, first at Carlson, then at Michigan, those are facts that show we're still on the leading edge of change."
Davis-Blake was the first woman asked to lead the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota in July 2006, and at the time was the highest-ranking female U.S. business school dean. She arrived having already served as an associate dean and former department chair at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas.
Lynne Richardson, former dean of Mississippi State University's College of Business, also knows the tough road of a trailblazer.
She was the only female tenure track professor in the marketing department at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, for the 13 years she was there and the first female dean at the Miller College of Business at Ball State University in Indiana. She was only the second female dean at Mississippi State's business school, and just recently stepped down after three and a half years.
"I wasn't the woman, I was just a colleague," she said. "That's the way I've always treated it. I don't think of myself as a female dean, just think of myself as a dean, or a faculty member."
Yet she can still remember the comments from one crotchety professor who referred to her children as "baggage."
"You know what?" Richardson told him, "Those three kid are the best part of my life, and this is just a job. I'm sorry if you see them as baggage, they're not baggage to me.' He never would have said that to a man," she finished.
Despite the occasional uphill battle, Richardson, a marketing professor, loved her time in academic leadership and is thrilled by the success of colleagues like Davis-Blake, who are proving that the right woman is just as capable as a man of leading top-ranked schools.
Female appointments will only increase as the number of women getting Ph.D.s in business continues to grow, Thompson said.
"There are more women students in the Marriott School (now)," said Gary Cornia, dean of BYU’s Marriott School of Management. "But we always want more. The mix is not where we think it should be. And trust me, we will make sure that students on campus, when they're thinking about majoring in management, they're going to hear about Alison Davis-Blake."
In addition to being a widely-cited professor and capable leader, Davis-Blake is a wife and mother to two boys, one a freshman at Stanford, and the younger one a sophomore in high school.
Though she struggled with the challenge of being a working mother, especially within the LDS community, she said she's come to a peaceful realization that it's about finding balance within her own family - a difficult and intensely personal decision.
"A lot of people have opinions about what balance looks like," she said. "And balance, in my view, is lived within the privacy of one's own home and one's relationships. What you experience as balance, might not look like balance to another person. You must define with your husband and your children what is balance for your family and live it, and not get too worked up about people who don't think your life is as they would like it to be."
While she has developed a thick skin against the occasional negative comment or judgment call, Davis-Blake said she's received immense support along the way.
As the oldest of four children, Davis-Blake grew up in the shadow of the University of Minnesota, with a professor father who taught for 44 years in the Carlson School of Management, and a psychologist mother in private practice, who earned her Ph.D. the year after Davis-Blake did.
(Davis-Blake's father had just retired when she took over as the dean of the business school there, making her father one of her emeritus faculty members.)
When Davis-Blake came to BYU in 1976, she thought about being a college professor, but had no real solid plans. Instead, she simply stayed open to opportunities that came her way.
Like when she enrolled in Economics 101 with Professor Wayne Clark, and did so well that he encouraged her to become an economics major. She took his advice, and soon after was offered a job as a teaching assistant with Professor Larry Wimmer for the same class. She was the only female TA.
After she graduated and worked for several years in New York, she returned to BYU to pursue a master's of organizational behavior and began working with Alan Wilkins, a professor of organizational leadership and strategy.
"Alison is one of the best students with whom I've ever worked," Wilkins said. "She's just brilliant. She has a very good mind, but is also very organized, very purposeful about what she does. She was also pretty good at pushing back when she didn't agree, in a very thoughtful way. I'm not surprised that she's done as well as she has since she left here."
It was mentors like Wilkins who encouraged Davis-Blake to set her sights high, even though it wasn't common at the time for women to "move into the doctoral programs at the very highest levels of excellence," Davis-Blake said.
"BYU faculty were so integral in getting me to see myself in that way (saying) 'Yes, you can do this, you should do this. You should apply to the very best schools. You can make it.' They helped prepare me, but more than helping prepare me, they helped me believe that I could do it."
With such motivation, Davis-Blake applied and was accepted to Stanford, where she received her Ph.D. and soon after was scooped up by Carnegie Mellon University where she taught for several years before going to the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, where she served as department chair and later as an associate dean.
From there she cut a path to Minnesota, and will continue her trail blazing in Michigan beginning in August. Yet those who know her are not surprised. Her intelligence, compassion and ability to listen well qualify her for the new position, and any others she might be appointed to in the future.
"Alison is somebody who illustrates that it's not whether you're a man or a woman, but whether you really do a thoughtful (job)," Wilkins said. "It's about listening carefully, building careful plans. She is somebody who has demonstrated an ability to do that and is just a wonderful example to men and women."