When I arrived at the University of Virginia in the fall of 1970, I was naively unaware of the challenges I would face as part of the first class of women admitted to the traditional, all-male, Southern University. My first inkling of what lay ahead was discovering a urinal in the bathroom of my dorm suite. We also learned that there was only one shower for 10 girls. These were two simple things that I knew right away weren’t going to work for “the girls.”
These simple things were just the beginning of a four-year experience as a woman in an institution that had been staunchly male for 155 years. It wasn’t always easy, but it was a great character builder. Thirty-five years later at a reunion of “the firsts,” I was gratified to hear Ernie Ern, the dean of admissions from that time, say that admissions had purposefully chosen women who wouldn’t just open doors, but would knock them down. It was what we had to do—though often unconsciously—as we redefined the undergraduate culture at the University.
For the most part, my experiences in those first four years of co-education were positive. What 18-year-old girl wouldn’t love being in a school filled with bright young men? In 1970, there were 450 women in an undergraduate class of more than 6,500 students. It was an exciting time both intellectually and socially. But there were many obstacles to overcome, stereotypes to face and new paths to forge. These challenges, however, proved to be invaluable for me as I continued on a pioneering path for women in business and leadership throughout my career. I have been the fortunate beneficiary of many valuable lessons that only this specific moment in history could offer me.
One of the greatest lessons I learned is that adversity is a gift. Not everyone was happy about the Board of Visitors’ decision to admit women. Much of the resistance came from older, tenured faculty members. I had one professor in particular who was angry that there were now women in his class. He made no secret of his feelings; his attitude carried into the classroom and his assignments. When I spoke in class, I was often chided. He often made sexist and demeaning remarks about the new coeds. When I tried to arrange a one-on-one meeting with him to review a low grade, he referred me to an assistant. He would not meet with me. It scared me that I had such a hostile professor, and I felt threatened academically in his class. I decided that my best option was to study hard, make it through his class without failing and be more attentive to my choices when setting up the next semester’s schedule. He was a tough introduction to my first semester at UVA, but the experience taught me how to face resistance and obstruction without sinking into blame. It pushed me to face adversity with a commitment to finding solutions and making my way toward a more positive playing field. We all inevitably face daunting and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Taking them on as a challenge and as an opportunity is an approach that separates the average from the exceptional. With this perspective, we can gain new insights, uncover innovative solutions and increase our capacity to persevere through thick or thin.
There will be times in everyone’s life when you have to stand alone in the face of fear and override that inner voice telling you to stay small, shrink into the woodwork if possible and turn back. Acknowledging and taking action in the face of your fears is rewarded with increased courage.
The women in my class constantly walked into uncharted and often hostile territory. With a 20-to-1 ratio of men to women, a class of 200 would on average have 10 girls. When we entered a classroom, we usually stood out like sore thumbs. One day, I was running a little late and arrived at my class a few minutes into the lecture. I gingerly opened the door and tried to quietly slip in unnoticed. The class had about 150 students and every seat was taken. The dress code of the day for women was miniskirts and platform shoes. Sitting on the floor was not a viable option. As I scanned the room, hoping to find an empty seat, the room got very quiet. The professor stopped talking and turned his attention to me, standing awkwardly just inside of the door. “We’re happy you decided to make it, Miss Shotton,” he said. Then, his voice dripping with sarcasm, he said,” Now, which one of you Virginia gentlemen would like to give this little lady their seat?” No one budged. My heart was pounding as an entire room of mostly young men turned their heads and looked at me with defiance and amusement.
“Oh my God,” I thought, “what if no one stands up? Please, please, please, someone please stand up.” Finally, the skinniest, geekiest nerd in the class got up and made his seat available. My opinion of nerds changed in an instant. I pulled myself together, stood up straight and tried to appear confident and nonchalant as I made my way to the seat. I found it hard to concentrate during the rest of the class but I mustered my courage and continued to act like it was nothing, all the while feeling mortified inside.
There were plenty of other occasions when I felt like an outsider, the odd woman out. There were few role models to support me or safety nets to catch me when I stumbled and fell. I had plenty of opportunity to increase my reserve of courage during those days and I am a stronger person and better leader today because of it.
When I first encountered overt prejudice and found myself the object of unfair discrimination, I was angry and I fought back. But as I continued on a pioneering path and gained experience and wisdom, I realized that it wasn’t about me. When my integrity was questioned because I innocently walked “on the Lawn,” when I was told that girls were ruining the school, when I was on the receiving end of sarcastic remarks about women by professors, I learned that my anger did nothing to help the situations. My choice in the face of unfairness was to learn to not take it personally and get myself out of harm’s way. I realized that other people’s biases and opinions are their own. I learned to not be a victim. Instead I developed a quiet self-confidence born from perseverance.
There are many lessons to be learned on an uncertain path or when stepping into unchartered territory, for men and women alike. The greatest of all is learning that you can do it, that you can increase your wingspan. Whatever reality you face, whatever obstacles are in your path, the world offers infinite solutions and a universe of possibility. Life is short and time is precious. Don’t waste it by staying small. Step up to the challenges and opportunities that your life offers, rise above perceived limitations and soar.
I am grateful that I chose to be part of that first class of women, an opportunity that paved the way for gender parity in the decade that followed. And I am grateful for the many lessons learned from the experience, not the least of which were overcoming adversity, strengthening my courage and increasing my self-confidence.