‘Finding My Voice and Standing My Ground’

Mar 29, 2024

Five women deans
Image Caption
Five of 15 school and college deans at UMD are women, a figure that surpasses the 22% percent of research university leadership positions that are held by women nationwide. Collage by Valerie Morgan.

The story originally appeared in Maryland Today. Written by Maggie Haslam, Sala Levin ’10 and Karen Shih ’09.

For University of Maryland Senior Vice President and Provost Jennifer King Rice, finding success as a leader of a Big Ten university while raising five children has been the most significant challenge she’s faced over her professional career—and her biggest point of pride.

It’s an opportunity she could have missed, had it not been for the women who came before her.

“My biggest barrier to leadership may have been my own expectations of myself,” said Rice, who already had three young children at home as a pre-tenured faculty. “My move into each of these leadership roles started with a respected female colleague who planted the seed and encouraged me to jump in and make a bigger difference. My passion for leadership only grew as new opportunities allowed me to work with our diverse campus community to have a broader impact."

While women have made strides in reaching the upper echelon of higher education, they still make up only 22% of leadership positions at top research universities in the U.S.—and their attrition rates continue to outpace men's. But under Rice—and before her, Senior Vice President and Provost Mary Ann Rankin—Maryland is bucking the trend, with women serving in high-level administrative roles across campus, including five of the 15 deans of UMD’s colleges and schools.

Conversations about work-life balance and other challenges, she said, can open up possibilities for other aspiring women leaders—as provost, she works to provide the same support and encouragement she received on her journey.

“I make extra efforts to seek out prospective leaders who may not fit the traditional mold,” she said. “I have worked hard to recruit, mentor and support them to be successful, even in the face of competing demands, so they can do the same for the next generation of women leaders.”

Below, UMD’s five female deans shared during this Women’s History Month their experiences rising through the ranks of leadership, the challenges they’ve faced and how they are paving the way for the women who follow:

Kimberly Griffin, Dean of the College of Education
“[A challenge is] keeping all the plates spinning and meeting everybody’s expectations. When I had a child, I had to find new ways to give everything I wanted to give to my family and everything I wanted to give to my career. Also, women are often asked to do more work and engage in academic service that’s time-intensive and energy-intensive, but not as visible. That includes providing feedback to students, serving on committees—things that don’t make people look at you and think, ‘She would be a good leader.’

Luckily, I’ve had amazing mentors, peers and sister circles who have seen my potential and provided me with a vision of who I could be. Seeing folks like our provost and other women deans who are deeply committed to our work and scholarship and are still amazing wives and mothers is really inspiring to me. It reminds me to show up authentically and honestly so others know they can too.

Part of my success is directly connected to my relationship with Stephanie (Shonekan) and Susan (Rivera). It’s so powerful that three women of color started in the same year as deans of their colleges at UMD. They're brilliant and so wise; we talk about our challenges, we innovate together. It’s really affirming.”

Dawn Jourdan, Dean of the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation
“Women are often very team-oriented, which can make it unclear who is behind the work. It can be difficult to receive attention for the work you are doing at your institution. However, those outside your organization are often quick to notice it. It’s in those scenarios where many of my colleagues have left an institution for another opportunity.

While moving can be an amazing opportunity, it is hard, both personally and professionally. It disrupts family and friendships. If you have research, it has to move or change. I think there are dimensions of what it takes to be mobile that aren’t clear to everyone.

As a dean, I listen. I work to find people the resources they need to be successful here. Sometimes it's money but sometimes it’s a megaphone or a connection. For people who aren’t in high-funded research areas, and particularly women, it can be a challenge—but it’s about who in our community needs the extra support to keep elevating. I spend a lot of time thinking about building a culture and a lifetime career.”

Adriene Lim, Dean of Libraries
“Throughout my career, I’ve been a leader who specializes in the technological aspects of libraries, overseeing how we transformed access to information, produced large-scale digital collections, and more. When working on campuses with other technology leaders, I was often one of the only women at the table. In those settings, I noticed that we women bonded deeply with each other. I also noticed that we were interrupted more often, or our ideas were claimed by men. But I’ve learned to be a good ally if I see this happening. I’ll speak up and say, ‘Teresa just expressed that idea and I really agree with her.’

It's sometimes difficult for women to advance in academia without an additional tax of time and work, and having intersectional identities can compound this. For example, I’m an Asian American woman and there are associated stereotypes that we have to confront, such as Asian women being perceived as either ‘dragon ladies’ or ‘lotus blossoms.’ That’s why it’s strategic for us as women to build networks of supportive people in our fields, to help overcome barriers through mentoring and sponsorships.

I always advise women who I mentor: Apply for that great position even if you don’t have all the preferred qualifications. I've noted that we women tend to work a little longer or wait to get that one more credential before applying. Instead, I say, just go for it and be your fantastic self. Odds are good that you are ready now if you've done the work to prepare."

Susan Rivera, Dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences
“When I think about where I am now and what I had to overcome, I think it was mainly learning to have confidence in myself and my own opinions, my own abilities, my own viewpoint. The barrier to that through my career has often been demonstrative, overbearing colleagues, mostly men, who—not because they were bad people, but because they were products of their own upbringing—were often very quick to talk over me or be dismissive of my ideas. As I grew through my career, I really had to overcome this feeling that if they think I don’t know what I’m talking about, I must not know what I’m talking about.

The other part of it was just finding my voice and standing my ground. I had to learn the right combination of being assertive and staying in the moment—sort of saying, ‘So let me reiterate what I was saying,’ or, ‘This is my perspective as a professional who has been working in this area for a long time.’ It wasn’t quick or easy. I took some little stumbles along the way, but once I learned how to navigate that space, that really opened a lot of doors for me.”

Stephanie Shonekan, Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities
“I always think of myself in the intersectional way, as both Black and a woman. Society has certain ways of seeing Black women, and what that’s meant is I’ve had to really think about how I show up and how I am perceived by others, and adjust myself based on what those perceived expectations are. I’d think about the volume of my voice. I’d think about what I wear. I’d think about my hair. You hear things like, ‘It’s more professional to have straight hair,’ or, ‘Braids or locs are not as professional as straight hair.’ I grew up on that, and earlier in my career that was something that kept me from wearing my hair a certain way. I’ve let go of that. We’ve had so much education nationally on Black hair, and I think that we have moved further, though I don’t think all the way.

I’m thrilled to be in a position where I’m making an impact on the next generation of leaders. I want my colleagues to see me as I am, and to feel comfortable as they are—to show up as their authentic selves.”