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We’ve built a new major at my institution under the leadership of two working mothers.

There, I said it. But you won’t find this fact explicitly mentioned in other discussions of our global commerce major.

Our university webpage lays out many of the innovative aspects of our curriculum, from emphasizing an interdisciplinary, liberal arts approach to understanding the world of commerce to building team projects and teamwork skills into all of our core courses and integrating our co-curricular programming with our curriculum.

Leading this program (currently in its sixth year and at 200 majors) are a director and associate director who are both female and both parents. Our perspectives, skills and experiences as professional women are crucial to our roles in constructing this major, especially in our intentional efforts to create a positive and inclusive departmental culture.

In recent years, we’ve seen increasing national attention focused on the importance of female leadership—sometimes explicitly connected to motherhood—in business and other professions, including academe. Higher education has also seen new investigations into the impact of departmental culture on faculty work, as well as innovative tools for addressing problematic departmental cultures.

Building a new academic program offered us the unusual opportunity to create a functioning departmental culture rather than having to change a dysfunctional existing one.

Of course, simply having women in leadership roles does not automatically create a positive departmental culture. And the practices we have implemented in the daily operations of the global commerce program are not inherently female. But Jane Palmer and I have worked intentionally to bring our combined decades of experience as women in higher education to bear on how we build and model productive relationships and communication practices with colleagues and students. Our shared goal has been to create a space where all colleagues are explicitly valued, included and respected.

The Opportunity

In 2015, a group of Denison University faculty proposed the new global commerce major in response to President Adam Weinberg’s invitation to think creatively about innovative ways to build on our liberal arts strengths to address 21st-century student needs and interests. With the support of the general faculty, the Board of Trustees and alumni and local professionals, a steering committee of six tenured faculty members, including myself, set to work implementing the initial curricular vision, offering our first set of classes in the fall of 2016. Not long afterward, Jane and I realized that our program’s innovative approach to preparing students for careers in business and nonprofit organizations presented an opportunity to construct an inclusive departmental culture from the ground up.

As of the 2021–22 academic year, we have seven people housed within our program’s physical space: one faculty director, three tenure-track faculty, one visiting assistant professor, one associate director and one administrative assistant. Among those seven individuals, we have people who identify as the following: six women and one man, two international employees, two people of color, three people without children, and four mothers.

We also have a wide variety of colleagues across campus who make important contributions to building this program. But in terms of daily operations, the demographic makeup of our departmental office space is exceptional in most academic disciplines, and even more so for a program that especially draws students interested in careers in business. As a result, we have seized the opportunity to create a new model of academic leadership and departmental culture that benefits faculty, staff and students alike.

The Framework for Success

Our leadership rests on three key assumptions:

  1. Personal lives shape the way that department members accomplish their work. As women who have built our careers within dual-career partnerships while raising children, we are always juggling the demands of home and work. Rather than concealing that tension in the global commerce suite, we embrace the reality that all department members have complicated lives.

We work to model transparent communication about personal obligations that impact our work schedules. We set a tone of reasonable flexibility, recognizing that different people have different work styles and different demands on their time. Sick children, the birth of a niece, a weekend soccer injury, the need to tend to aging parents—all these are part of life, and both faculty and staff sometimes need to adjust how they do their work in order to hold everything together.

Creating the space to acknowledge personal lives makes it possible to operate on the principle that no single department member’s personal obligations are more important than another’s, and that except in crisis, no one’s personal life should prevent them from completing their work. Responding to one another’s challenges with consistent support and good humor fosters a sense of cohesion and makes it easier for everyone to come to work even on the most challenging days.

  1. Intentional and inclusive communication prevents problems before they start. Business writers often lump this skill into the category of empathy, which is seen as a particularly female leadership skill. But when pursuing the best pathway to achieve a goal, what could be more broadly human and rational than recognizing the need to understand the multiple perspectives around a table? What can be more important than creating a framework where those perspectives can be shared without slipping into a morass of indecision, poor decision making or resentment?

Intentional and inclusive communication requires the consistent recognition that each person’s presence in the department, participation in discussions and interactions with colleagues and students are shaped to some extent by their own experience and background. In the operations of global commerce, that means we work to set a tone of speaking from perspectives, rather than talking about absolute right or wrong. It means that when a faculty or staff member comes to me to discuss a challenging situation they need to work through, they are free to put the social and cultural factors that shape their personal experience—gender, race, nationality, socioeconomic background and so on—on the table as part of the discussion, rather than talking around or past those crucial issues in brainstorming a strategy to address the problem.

Finally, it means that we never conclude a department meeting until everyone has had the opportunity to contribute to the discussion and have their ideas heard—whether faculty or staff, tenure-track faculty or visitors, female or male.

It does not mean that we always agree, that things always go smoothly or that we have eliminated all the challenges of academic departmental dynamics. But based on a recent departmental conversation regarding what people most value about our developing departmental culture, it does mean that everyone feels included, seen and listened to. As a result, it also means that they are willing to lean in and pull together for the department and our students.

  1. Students are a fundamental part of any departmental culture. Our emphasis on effective communication shapes how we teach and mentor our students, which in turn shapes how faculty and staff experience the department. From the start, the interdisciplinary faculty and staff constructing global commerce saw the importance of helping our majors build professional communication and interpersonal skills. That goal provided the inspiration for addressing students’ communication skills directly and positively, inside and outside the classroom. For example, rather than simply getting frustrated with dismissive or disrespectfully worded emails from students, we have developed a practice of responding to such emails with clear and firm but encouraging messages meant to coach them toward professional communication.

We frame these responses in terms of both college and career skills, emphasizing the importance of taking the time to communicate clearly and effectively when you are asking another person to take the time to respond or to help you with something. The overall goal is to model effective leadership by women and people of color and to balance between correcting a student and teaching them how to do better.

This coaching of students is just as important for our own departmental culture as it is for students’ future professional lives. It sets a tone for student interactions with all faculty and staff and provides a model that junior faculty—who are often even more likely to be on the receiving end of thoughtless or offensive emails from students—can use to respond to students. And it clearly conveys that such responses are not about an individual faculty or staff member’s personal feelings but rather about departmental expectations of how people communicate effectively with each other in professional—including academic—settings.

Our lived experiences as professional women and mothers drive our commitment to these principles, but departmental leaders can—and, we think, should—implement these ideas regardless of their own gender or background. What we have created with our Denison colleagues is neither perfect nor finished, but it has given us optimism about the future of higher education as a site of collaboration and mutual respect.

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