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Kellie McElhaney


Berkeley, CA

My peers told me that working on gender issues would be career suicide. I stood firmly and said, 'Let the market decide.'

As I navigated male-dominated areas of banking and academia in my career, I became used to two things: hearing the word "no" and not feeling "out" as a woman. At work I often found myself playing the role of a man. I am embarrassed to admit that, in the nineties, I even wore ties.

I had reached a stage in my career where I was coasting, comfortable, and at a point of professional stasis and ease. And I was bored to death. One Christmas vacation when I was teaching, I travelled back East and saw my mother, who had just had several surgeries. I found her weak, shrunken, and bed-bound -- so unlike the strong, vivacious, woman I knew. It hit me hard that I could not disappoint her by coasting and giving into the "no's" in my life. I had two daughters and was committed to making the world a better place for them as women. I decided right then to come back the next semester, lean in, and "out" myself as a woman.

My first foray into this newer space was to conduct research that proved that companies with more women on their boards also had higher environmental, social and governance performance. I wrote a paper and presented it for the first time to a group of female Presidents, CEOs and board members in New York. They tore it to shreds. They did not want to be associated with anything other than hard business returns, and certainly not the soft stuff of environment or community. They insisted that they did not see any difference between male and female business leaders. It was the last audience from whom I expected such staunch criticism.

One female leader came up to me in my slightly shell-shocked state after the session and said, "Clearly you have touched a nerve and started a conversation that needs to happen right now. You pissed them off. It means you are on a critical path. Stay on it and I will help you in any way I can."

I stayed up that night in my hotel room and developed a whole new MBA course around women and business. I discussed the new class with a few of my peers, who told me that working on gender issues would be career suicide. I proposed the course to my deans' office, as happens with all new courses. I was given the feedback that there was no academic underpinning nor solid research on which to base my MBA class. Besides, no one would be interested in taking it. It was suggested that if I were interested in teaching such a course, perhaps I should move to the department of Gender Studies.

I stood firmly and proposed, "Let the market decide. Let me teach it once and see if students sign up and how it goes." I went with my intuition and gut, which were telling me that this was my calling, my zone, and that there was a market for this.

There was. Men and women signed up for the class and it filled. Though I have always been successful as a teacher in the classroom, I had repeated moments of sheer panic and dread before each class, as I was so out of my comfort zone. I felt like a fraud teaching something in which I was not "an expert." I leaned in anyway.

The semester ended, and I got a 6.8 / 7.0 on my teaching evaluations. I also received the MBA professor of the year award. The next year the course enrollment increased so much that we had to find a bigger room for it. My advice is to constantly get out of your comfort zone, be scared and stretched, trust your gut and intuition, and never take "no" for an answer if you believe in yourself and in your power and passions.

Turn the nay sayers in to yeah sayers.