Soon after her arrival on campus during her first year, Lucy Wade Shapiro '15 attended a meeting for students interested in running for a position on the Executive Committee. "Afterwards, a girl came up to me and was like, 'You know women don't win?' And I was like, 'What?' " recalled Shapiro.
Having been president of the honor council at her high school in Memphis, Shapiro never considered her gender a potential obstacle in a college campaign. She ignored the warning, won the election and served as EC class representative her first and sophomore years.
Shapiro shared this experience at Washington and Lee's fourth Women's Leadership Summit, a two-day conference held Jan. 31–Feb. 1 at the Hotel Roanoke. An enthusiastic crowd of about 90 women, from the College and the Law School, attended.
What prompted the first summit back in 2009? A noticeable absence of women in campus-wide leadership positions. Sidney Evans, then the associate dean for law student services, zeroed in on the problem after taking a closer look at a poster showcasing the then current members of the EC. Only one woman, Jane Ledlie Batcheller '03, '08L, was serving on the 13-member committee.
"The poster caught everyone's attention. It was a very visible 'whoa,' " recalled Evans, now W&L's undergraduate dean of students and vice president for student affairs. She and the undergraduate administration began conversations about how to motivate women to run for campus-wide office and to get involved in the bigger conversation.
"There were some issues on campus we wanted to address," said Evans, "but we also wanted to better equip women for some of the challenges they might face after graduation, whether it be from undergraduate school or law school."
The result? The first Women's Leadership Summit. Held at a rustic lodge in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the event may have produced more laughs than actual EC presidents. One participant found a snake in her room, while another, unenthused by the accommodations, slept in her car. The overall response of female students was not as enthusiastic as the administration had hoped.
But the event's appeal has steadily improved. Students celebrated the most recent summit with tweets and Instagram photos. To meet student demand, the number of attendees was increased from last year's 70 students to 93 students (77 undergraduates, 16 law students). Even with this increase, some interested women had to be turned away.
"One thing that was a huge change is that they filled out interest forms this time, which allowed me to know what they wanted to talk about," said Megan Schneider, associate director of leadership. "It wasn't a summit for 90 women, it was a summit for these 90 women." Women have grasped the importance of running for office, said Schneider, but they seek more guidance about leadership-related issues, from accepting setbacks to finding the right leadership style.
Motivational quotes from Oprah, Tina Fey and Madeleine Albright set the stage Friday night during an interactive program about leadership identity. On Saturday, students mingled with alumnae, who facilitated 10 break-out groups. These lively and no-holds-barred sessions covered campaigning, leaning in and other hot-topic issues.
One highlight of the weekend was the keynote address by former EC president Helen Hughes Sanders '04, who shared the highs and lows of her journey through high school, W&L and post-collegiate life. Her talk underscored another goal of the summit—creating an environment that welcomed honest discussion.
A collaborative environment helps leaders learn and ultimately do a better job, said Athletic Director Jan Hathorn, who has attended all four summits. The leadership gathering is valuable, she said, because it provides women a safe place to talk with other women. "I think sometimes that's still a necessity."
Rachel Oguntola '17 left the summit feeling inspired. "My greatest takeaway was how to be yourself and not to shy away from different opportunities, especially leadership opportunities on campus," she said.
Oguntola and others shared summit highlights on Twitter and Instagram. These can be found at http://storify.com/wluLex.
—by Amy C. Balfour '89, '93L
See more about the Women's Leadership Summit and other efforts to develop student leaders on campus in the Winter 2014 issue of W&L: The Washington and Lee University Alumni Magazine, coming soon to your mailbox.