In this episode of Lehigh University’s College of Business IlLUminate podcast, we are speaking with Georgette Chapman Phillips, the Kevin L. and Lisa A. Clayton Dean of the College of Business at Lehigh.
Dean Phillips' research and teaching is focused on the intersection of law, economics and public policy. She is published in the areas of urban and regional planning, local government law, real estate and housing. She also has a law degree from Harvard Law School.
She spoke with Rob Gerth, director of marketing and communications for Lehigh Business. Listen to the podcast here and subscribe and download Lehigh Business on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
Below is an edited excerpt from that conversation. Read the complete podcast transcript.
Rob Gerth: This year, Lehigh is marking 50 years of undergraduate coeducation – Soaring Together. Is there any certain type of pressure that comes from being the first woman anything?
Georgette Chapman Phillips: I would have to say yes. Because on the one hand, people are pinning their expectations on you whether you have agreed to accept that invitation. And on the other hand, there are people that are going to be quite skeptical of who you are because you're a woman. My answer to this is that excellence rules out. That doing your job and doing your job well is the answer to both sides of the equation. But yes, you are under a little bit more scrutiny as being the first anything, the first African-American, the first woman.
Gerth: Before you became an academic, you worked at a couple of law firms. Were you at that time one of only a few women? And what was it like?
Phillips: That was a very different and special place and time. Wall Street in the 1980s was a very go, go place. It was-- well, I don't really like this term, but I can't really think of another better term. It was a very macho environment.
It was who can work longer, harder, bill more hours. And sometimes, you just have to take a step back from that and say, "No, I'm not going to be in your macho race. I'm going to do what I need to do to do my job in the excellent manner that you expect." But I do not need to-- as I said in that Saturday Night Live skit from many years ago, “quien es mas macho” (who is more macho). I don't have to do that.
Gerth: Over the years, there's been an uptick in women in undergraduate and MBA programs. In fact, some programs are now 50-50. What do you attribute that to?
Phillips: Two very important factors. One is simply the passage of time. And the second is a concerted effort. When you are in high school-- let's talk about the undergraduates for just a moment. When you were in high school and you're thinking about going to college, many people do not know that you can get an undergraduate business degree.
Why? Because in high school, you don't study business. You studied Chemistry, or English, or History or Science. But you probably are not studying undergraduate business. And so you don't know that this is a possibility. So it's on us. It's our responsibility, those of us who have undergraduate business programs, to tell young women, "Yes, yes. This is a possibility." The concerted effort comes in that there are more women now that we can point to and say, "This is a woman who studied accounting. Or this is a woman who studied finance." And it brings it closer to that.
Gerth: What do you think an employer’s responsibility is, particularly towards women to support them?
Phillips: First, create an inclusive environment. So that a woman competes on her own steam without being held back. But the second thing is to open up opportunities, open up eyes. That if you see a woman who has a particular skill that the light is being shown upon them, to bring that out, to suggest women for career advancement, for MBA programs, for any kind of career progression that they might not know exists.
Gerth: What changes have you seen for women in the culture in the workplace over your career?
Phillips: Sometimes, I feel very old. And then, I realize I'm not that old. Because it was an extraordinarily different world. Young undergraduates or young MBAs that are coming out now, they are assumed to be competent. They are assumed to have a place in the employment that they have chosen. And it's really the attitude of you're no longer an aberration. You're the norm.
And I think that because so many women have now paved the path for these young women coming into the business world, they are not seen as an aberration. And they are able to compete on the basis of their skill and their ability. That's probably the biggest change that I've seen. And that men have recognized this. That perhaps it wasn't always that way and have worked very hard to make it that way now. The level of just overt sexism has diminished logarithmically.
Gerth: The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that in 2019, women made up the majority of the American financial services workforce, yet less than a quarter of them were senior leadership.
Phillips: It's a leaky pipeline issue. And until you stop those leaks, stop women from dropping out of the workforce, just at the time that they start becoming middle managers which then leads to senior managers. If we can stop that leak, we're going to get a lot more women at the top. And I tell young women, much to their chagrin, that until men start having babies, it's never going to be equal. It's just not. And you cannot expect, you cannot expect that it is going to be equal. So what do you young women-- what do you have to do to make sure that you at least stay on track during the young childbearing years?
Gerth: Do you see any trends that are in a positive way for women going forward right now?
Phillips: I am constantly amazed at the young women that I meet that are coming through at Lehigh. What an incredibly talented group of women. I mean, the men are talented, too. But we're talking about specifically women. And the trend that I see and that I love is how assertive and forthright they are. They don't step back. They don't cower back. They don't wait to be asked. They just get out there. And you didn't see that 25 years ago.
As I told a group of young women in one of our women in business seminars, there are no masculine traits. There are no feminine traits. There are your traits. And you be you. And if that means being bossy, assertive, forthright, whatever positive or negative connotation you want to put on it, then you be you. And don't fall into the gender based stereotypes of how you have to act.
And so I love it that these women are there all that and more.