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October 25 , 2004
Not sitting down
BY Eric Rangus
When Susan Gilbert earned her doctorate in economics at the University of Pennsylvania in 1981, she was one of four women in a graduating class of 46. At AT&T, her first job out of graduate school, she was the only female in her department. Business schools, Gilbert’s current place of employment, long have been dominated by males.
The worlds in which Gilbert has chosen to immerse herself have historically not been open to those of her gender. And that has never been a problem.
“I thought it was incredibly cool to be one of the few women in my graduate program,” said Gilbert, associate professor in the practice of finance in the Goizueta Business School. “I didn’t really appreciate the importance of having women as colleagues, mentors or role models. Now that I’m older, I recognize that more women in the workplace and especially women in senior positions could be valuable to young women just beginning their careers or those just learning about career possibilities.”
That was one of the reasons she agreed to join the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW), although she didn’t expect to become active. She also remembered advice a fellow faculty member had offered upon hearing she had signed up: “Whatever you do, don’t volunteer for anything.”
That was 2001. Gilbert clearly did not take that advice. She started out on the faculty concerns committee and helped make it a force for action. This fall Gilbert took over as chair of the entire commission, a position she will hold for the rest of the academic year.
“My goal is to improve the status of women on campus,” she said. “That means more women in leadership positions around the University. Each year we hear about executive searches for a number of positions. At the last University Senate meeting, it was announced that there are two deans’ openings, two vice provosts and a vice president of marketing. That’s five separate opportunities, and I would say we will have been ineffective if none of those are filled by women.”
Gilbert doesn’t shy away from leadership positions of her own. In addition to taking on responsibilities as 2004–05 commission chair, this summer Gilbert was named associate dean and director of Goizueta’s Evening MBA program. The program is aimed at degree seekers in their late 20's with about six years of work experience. Many haven’t yet decided on a career track, want to make themselves more valuable to their companies, and would like to earn an MBA but don’t want to give up their jobs.
Completing the 18 courses necessary for the degree takes 30–36 months. Gilbert has taught students in the program for several years, so she has an idea about what she wants to accomplish as its director. The program has about 200 students now, but Gilbert eventually wants to double its size. She has begun to expand student services and an external program review planned for next year, she said, which should provide some possible curricular innovations.
“I’d like to have a better sense of the professional development needs and aspirations of our students—both for those who want to be promoted within their companies as well as students who want to look outside their companies when they graduate,” Gilbert said.
Regarding her own professional development, Gilbert came to Emory in perhaps the simplest of ways: she asked to teach here. After earning her doctorate in 1981, Gilbert got a job in the private sector—an atypical career move for a Ph.D. candidate from Penn. In 1988 she had been working at AT&T for seven years and was considering relocating to the Southeast, Coincidentally, Emory’s economics department was interested in finding someone to teach the subject in a way that was relevant to business. So, the department took Gilbert up on her offer, named her a visiting professor in economics, and she began building a reputation at a top-notch teacher.
In 1991, Gilbert expanded her scope by teaching an economics course in the Goizueta Business School—that same year the economics department gave Gilbert her first teaching award (she now has four). She started out teaching one class, then three, then five, and soon, Gilbert said, it didn’t make any sense for her to be employed at Emory College while she was doing all her teaching in the business school, so she formally moved over.
Although Gilbert has several areas of specialization, her primary one is business economics. Over the past few years she has been stretching that expertise in a variety of ways, primarily to adapt to the changing makeup of her students.
“Students in the business school are a diverse population,” said Gilbert, who estimated that about 30 percent of her students come from outside the United States. “I just didn’t feel like I had enough international experience. You want to be able to teach from a global vantage point because today most large businesses are multinational.”
Over the last three years, Gilbert has led four groups of MBA students on two-week trips overseas. The size of the groups ranged between 20 and 60, and they visited Southeast Asia, South America, and Central and Eastern Europe. The idea was to visit both developing and affluent nations on each trip so the students could get perspectives on the economic challenges facing each.
“In a developed country, you would never think that a change in income would make much of a difference on paper goods such as tissues, napkins or even toilet paper,” said Gilbert, who on her last trip to Southeast Asia visited both the affluent nation of Singapore and the much more undeveloped or less wealthy countries of Thailand and Vietnam. “It’s something those in wealthy nations consume on a regular basis in regular quantities. In a developing economy, if income rises to a certain level, there is suddenly demand for these paper products and it becomes a very attractive market.”
Back on campus, female business students frequently come to Gilbert as a mentor. They remain a minority
(31 percent), but their numbers are growing. Gilbert said the students feel simply having another woman to talk to is helpful. It’s a viewpoint she understands herself.
“One of the greatest benefits the PCSW provides me is that it is a way to interact professionally with other women and to learn more about other parts of the University,” Gilbert said. “Our daily work lives often are self-contained—we teach in our own buildings, our students are always here, our offices are here—and PCSW has opened up doors for me. I can appreciate what goes on in the rest of the University.”
Joining the commission, is something Gilbert would recommend to any female faculty member, staff member or student. “It’s an unbridled opportunity to discuss issues that matter to women,” she said. “It can be more than that if you want to devote the time and try to improve the status of women on campus, but even if you don’t have the time, it’s wonderfully engaging and a great respite.”
Gilbert has specific interest in the status of one woman on campus—her daughter Leslie. A junior in Emory College, Leslie could be following in her mom’s footsteps as well—she is an economics major. She also is talking about attending graduate school, the same path her mother took. “I don’t know if she’d admit to following in her mom’s footsteps,” Gilbert said. “But I’m very flattered and very proud.”