Models and Mentors

Mariko Silver examines the intersection of sex, gender, power and policy in academe and the workplace.

June 2, 2016

I was a candidate for the job of president of Bennington College, and I faced a dilemma many women face at some point in their careers: To tell or not to tell? I was three months pregnant with my second child when I received a call from a search firm -- not yet pregnant enough for people to offer me their seat on the bus, but that day was coming. It would become obvious at some point before members of the search committee had to make their final choice that I would give birth within months of this position’s intended start date.

I did what I usually do when faced with a professional dilemma: I asked my mentors for advice. My informal poll of roughly five men and five women yielded an even split -- and revealed a stark divide within even my small sample group. The women said I must tell; the men said I absolutely must not. That was an unexpected, admittedly unscientific, window into the differing perspectives of men and women regarding how they are perceived in, and perceive, the workplace.

I had no doubt that I could do the job while pregnant and nursing. I knew that with a supportive infrastructure of colleagues, family and excellent child care, I could handle -- even excel at -- the job while raising two daughters. Yet I did not know how to navigate the interview process while pregnant.

My female advisers, some with children and some without and who range in age from 35 to 80, felt that the search committee would think me dishonest if I did not share my circumstances. Legally no one could ask me as part of the interview process whether I was pregnant, but it would become obvious to all soon enough. My female advisers argued that the search firm might feel duped. Their concern centered on how I would be perceived as a person --on my character.

The men argued that my pregnancy was simply not relevant. Nothing about being pregnant or having a second child would compromise my ability to do the work of a college president. The focus should be my track record, my intellect, my vision for the college -- not my family. If I were a man, they said, and my partner were about to give birth, or even was in labor at that very moment, the search committee would neither know, nor need to know. As one of my closest mentors put it, it was none of their damn business.

I sided with the men. I did not tell.

By the time I was called as a finalist to come to campus to meet students, faculty members and administrators, it was obvious to anyone on the subway that I was expecting a child. So I made jokes about having a campus full of babysitters at my disposal. I talked about how wonderful a place Vermont would be to raise my two young children. I didn’t drink any wine at the receptions. Mostly, though, I talked about the work, the job. I listened to what people wanted for the future of this remarkable institution and to their ideas of how to get there. In other words, I treated it like a job interview for a position in which, in order to be effective as a leader and manager, I also needed to be human and accessible. I didn’t talk directly about my pregnancy and neither did anyone else.

There are many ways to be a woman -- thank goodness -- but being pregnant illuminates your biological sex in a way nothing else can. During my Bennington interview process, gender was, literally, out front in a way that it usually is not. However, even when not so visibly female, we are always navigating the culture of gender. That culture, and its subcultures, is ever more complicated and nuanced as we increasingly challenge gender norms, gendered expectations and the biological determination of sex and sexuality. I can speak personally only from my lived experience as a biological, cisgender, heterosexual woman of color. I work to engage as a college president with the broad spectrum of perspectives and identities our communities are fortunate to encompass.

As women, we are often forced to make decisions about how we want to live our gender in the workplace. Will we permit ourselves to be sexualized? Will we resist an almost inevitable sexualization with words or deeds? Will we, and can we, embrace that sexualization as a path to influence? Just as these questions can come up explicitly or implicitly, sexualization can be overt or covert. When it is explicit, it is difficult. When it is implicit or covert, it can be even harder.

I have been fortunate in my career that these questions have come up urgently only twice. In one case, I smiled, demurred and stepped away. In the other, I voiced a grievance. The cases were not so different, but the contexts and my own levels of maturity were.

In the second instance I voiced a grievance because the man who cornered me in a hotel room on a business trip was in a position of significant power over me and over many others who, I knew, might not feel powerful enough themselves to raise an alarm. Even as I write this, I wonder if that man will ever read it and be angry, and what the consequences might be. There was no violence in my story, but rather grossly inappropriate behavior. Yet we know that women do face terribly violent and terrifying aggressors in the workplace and as students at our colleges and universities.

I am grateful to be a college president at a time when questions of sex and consent are at the forefront -- thankfully -- of an ever-emerging conversation on campuses across the country. As members of the academy, it is of vital importance that we help students understand the ways in which they are participating in a range of power relationships. As women in the academy, we have the opportunity and the obligation to serve both as mentors and as models. We have an opportunity to establish cultural norms that students have been proven to carry with them into the world after this formative phase of life. This is not surprising, given what we expect students to do: examine themselves and their own assumptions, think about the society around them, and engage with ideas and the structures in which they live currently and go on to live and develop.

Knowledge is socially constructed, and for our students and much of the wider world -- at universities and college -- we are its arbiters. Understanding the structure of interaction leads to understanding how norms are created. We, and our students, can decide to live within the norms or not. Knowing how to read those norms and make informed decisions about engagement with them is particularly important to survival and success if you are a woman, minority or person from a subjugated group.

The opportunities I have been offered are exceptional, but it is astounding what one is able to gain if she asks. My path to state government, federal government and academe was never clear-cut or predetermined. I didn’t expect to get what I wanted with every opportunity or position I sought, but I asked for it nonetheless. I learned: fight for what you think you deserve. Use every opportunity -- earned or assumed, afforded to you or withheld -- to reflect on and shape who you want to be in the workplace.

When I was leaving the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to return to work at Arizona State University and have my first child, I asked for a meeting with then Secretary Janet Napolitano in order to thank her for providing me extraordinary opportunities. I emphasized how lucky I felt to be able to serve. She stopped and scolded me. “Luck,” she said, “was not the point.” She almost shouted at me, “You earned it!” I was a bit taken aback, but message received. I learned another lesson about being a woman in the workplace: own your accomplishments.

I believe that what people inside organizations think and what they do matters. The decisions they make matter: that is precisely what can generate the greatest change.

With whatever resources you have -- as a scholar, a practitioner, a policy maker, a colleague to women and men alike, a mother of toddlers or not -- never stop seeking to make the world as you want it to be when the world as you find it is unacceptable. That is my message to students -- as well as to the rest of the administration, to the staff and to the faculty -- and the method I hope to model.


Mariko Silver is president of Bennington College. Previously, she was a senior adviser to the president of Arizona State University and held leadership roles at Columbia University, in the Obama administration and in the administration of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. This article has been adapted from Women in the Academy: Learning From Our Diverse Career Pathways, published by Lexington Books.


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