Alison Davis-Blake, dean of the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, is used to being lonely.
“I have been the first at everything I’ve done in academic leadership,” says Davis-Blake. She adds that she was the first woman to be the chair of her department at the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, the first female senior associate dean at McCombs, the first female dean of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, and now the first woman to run Ross. Bloomberg Business asked Davis-Blake why she’s had to be first so many times, and what it’s like to be one of the only women camping out in a business school’s corner office. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Why are you one of only 10 female deans at the top 60 business schools?
It’s a really long road from the start of this profession to the deanship. If you count back, the women that are deans now got their degrees in the middle to late ’80s, [and] there just weren’t that many women in grad school [at that time]. At every stage, women drop out at a disproportionally high rate.
And to get a deanship, there are many more stops along the way.
There are lots more firm hurdles. You have to get a certain degree, you have to get tenure. These are “up or out” processes.
Can you sketch out that path to a deanship?
You have to get an undergraduate degree—that’s a process that’s at parity in this country—you have to get admitted into a doctoral program to get a Ph.D.; right there, there are differential completion rates. Then you have to get a tenure-track job as an assistant professor. There are differential success rates there. Then you need to get tenure; there’s differential success there. Then you need to become an academic leader, and by that time we are down to so few people.
So few people, or so few women?
So few women.
How do you fix that?
The tenure clock generally corresponds with the 30s, and it’s a short, high-pressure time. You might start on the tenure clock at 30, and it’s maybe a 10-year process. Making the tenure clock more flexible for family situations has been done—pretty much every major university has extensions of the tenure clock and reduced workloads for people who have children. Part of it is making sure people have appropriate mentoring and exposure to leadership opportunities.
What are the unique pressures you face?
Maybe your style or approach isn’t as familiar as the person who came before you, so there’s a longer period of adjustment. People are looking at you to see: “Can a person like X do this job?”
Do you feel as though you are a test case?
I think I’ve proven I can do the job. I think people note it, people remark on it, and people do ask me, “What’s it like?” And on one level I’ll sometimes say, “You know, I don’t know what it’s like because I’ve never been a man. I’ve only been myself.” But there is a certain level of visibility, certain questions and certain possibilities that come to me because I am unique, which I hope will one day not be the case.
Most business schools have had zero women in the deanship, or they are just now appointing their first woman.
Was it ever daunting to you that you were going to be in a position where there were so few people who looked like you?
There have been so few people who looked like me since college. So this was kind of my normal. There have been 30 years of being one of the only or very few women in the room, so I just consider that as background. I focused more on, do I think I can do the work?
I hope that people coming up after me have something that I didn’t have. I was mentored by and helped by many men who I admired and who were good to me. But I could never look at them and say that they’re a lot like me. They might be a lot like me dimensionally, they might think a lot like me, or they might speak a lot like me, but I can’t look at them and say, “Oh, that person has the same issues in life that I have.” Looking at another woman, I can say that I see myself more in that person. Having more women deans around allows people to say, “Yeah, I could do this.”