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BYU graduate blazes path for female leaders

Published: Monday, Feb. 28 2011 3:00 p.m. MST

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."

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