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10 years strong: WVU program supports women leaders through inspiration, connections

Women leaders at West Virginia University don’t just celebrate history, they create it by breaking barriers and making a seat at the table for women in leadership roles. A decade after its inception, the Women’s Leadership Initiative continues to be a unique, necessary and enriching program at WVU.

“When you look at institutions—R1 institutions—in rural cities in Appalachia, you’re not seeing the same kinds of things that we’re doing here,” WLI Director W. Constinia Charbonnette said. “WLI is really the first of its kind in the state that solely focuses on women leadership development at the academic level.”

The program empowers women leaders beyond titles by helping them navigate barriers like applying for grants or working with budgets in higher education leadership roles, according to Charbonette who is also a director of strategic initiatives and assistant professor in the School of Public Health.

“We want to make sure that women are prepared for leadership, whether that’s in connections or finance or understanding the different areas of the university that may be somewhat veiled,” she said. “Sometimes the power of a phone call will make an artificial barrier go away very quickly. You never know the brilliance of someone else unless you have the opportunity to sit down and connect with them. WLI is about bridging the connection with uncommon destinations.”

Tracey Beckley, assistant provost for teaching and learning and a member of the WLI steering committee, loves WLI’s ability to share stories that may resonate with the community.

“I think it’s critical to give women a way to network, to connect to other women who can provide resources, who can give advice and listen,” Beckley said.

Stephanie Ballard Conrad, a senior director of strategic operations in West Virginia Clinical & Translational Science Institute, runs WLI’s social media accounts and has been a part of WLI for nine years and has been a part of the steering committee for two years.

“The opportunity to enhance my leadership style and to connect with other women leaders at WVU really drew me to the Women’s Leadership Initiative. WLI is made up of a tremendous network of diverse women leaders from across WVU and the opportunities for growth and learning are endless,” Ballard Conrad said.

Lisa DeFrank-Cole, director and professor of leadership studies and a member of the WLI steering committee, was among the first cohort.

“In the state of West Virginia, we’ve never had a female governor,” DeFrank-Cole said. “And most of our senior leaders at the state level are men. And even at our beloved University, West Virginia University, we’ve never had a female president, save one, Diane Reinhardt in the mid-1980s, who was an interim for half a year.”

While WVU has never had a full-time woman president, the university has had three women serve as full-time provost in the past decade, all of whom were a part of the WLI. Notably, current Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Maryanne Reed was an architect of the WLI and in the first cohort who participated in it.

“When (then) Provost Michele Wheatly and I created the program, we could never have imagined that it would continue for more than a decade,” Reed said. “I’m thrilled and amazed that the WLI, which we initially envisioned as one to support senior women leaders at WVU, has evolved into a comprehensive program benefiting literally hundreds of women at all stages of their leadership journey.”

Ten years ago, Reed and DeFrank-Cole might not have imagined how successful the WLI would become but a decade later they are testament to the program’s achievements.

“It’s hard to be what you can’t see,” DeFrank-Cole said. “Women need to see women as leaders. When women in West Virginia don’t see women in senior leadership positions, whether at the state level or even in their communities and particularly here at the University, then there’s some discouragement that can take place. WLI helps to encourage more women leaders, thus promoting their representation on campus to inspire others.”

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