Content Warning: This article contains references to sexual assault.

When Julia Miller became the first female dean among Emory University’s schools in 1944 — leading the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing — it would be 43 more years before another woman joined the ranks of deanship at Emory. However, her appointment was the first step toward increased female representation among the University’s deans, which will soon increase further when Sandra Wong begins her role as the Emory School of Medicine’s first female dean this month. After Wong takes over, eight of the nine deans overseeing the University’s schools will be women, with the exception of John H. Harland Dean of Goizueta Business School Gareth James.

This sets Emory apart from its peer institutions, which have lower rates of women among their individual schools’ head deans. On average, 34.51% of schools within each peer institution have a female dean, compared to Emory’s 88.89%.

With only one of eight schools, or 12.5%, under the guidance of a female dean, Washington University in St. Louis (Mo.) has the lowest rate of female deans among Emory’s peer institutions. New York University has the highest rate, with women leading 12 of the institution’s 19 schools, earning 63.16% of the deanships. 

Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Ravi Bellamkonda wrote in an email to the Wheel that Emory is pleased with the outcomes of recent dean searches. However, he did not specify if Emory has been targeting women for leadership positions.

“Emory attracts highly competitive applicant pools for leadership positions at our outstanding schools,” Bellamkonda wrote. “We work to hire the best, most qualified and dynamic deans possible and many of those happened to be women in recent searches.”

When Sandra Wong starts as dean of the Emory University School of Medicine, 88.9% of Emory’s schools deans will be women. (Courtesy of Emory University)

Having a larger number of female deans has positively changed the general environment at Emory, according to nursing school Associate Dean for Academic Operations Laura Kimble.

“Having more women, their perspectives, their lives, the things that impact them, is a really, really good thing,” Kimble said. “It’s not that men’s perspectives are bad … but I just think it gives that balance.”

The school of medicine was the last institution at Emory to appoint a woman as dean. Out of Emory’s 11 peer institutions with medical schools, only two universities — Duke University (N.C.) and University of Southern California (USC) — currently have women serving as the deans. The Duke School of Medicine appointed its first female dean in 2007, while the Keck School of Medicine of USC did the same in 2018. Only one of the other nine peer institutions, Georgetown University (D.C.), has ever had a female medical school dean, appointing her in 1998. 

Among Emory’s peer institutions, only nursing schools consistently have female deans. Like Emory, five of the six peer universities with nursing schools have never had a male dean, with the exception of the Duke School of Nursing from 2021 to 2023.

Kimble applauded the female leadership at Emory’s nursing school, but explained that gender stereotypes still permeate the field, as nurses are typically assumed to be women. However, she added that this belief is slowly changing as more men are encouraged to fill the role.

“All of us should be able to live our lives free from some of these things, these stereotypes that hold us back,” Kimble said.

History of female deans at Emory

Emory has not always had high rates of female deans among its individual schools. Women did not officially begin making up the majority until 2019, when Mary Anne Bobinski took over as the dean of Emory Law School. 

After the nursing school’s appointment of Miller in 1944, the Laney Graduate School became the next school to be led by a woman when Ellen Mickiewicz served as dean from 1980 to 1985. At Oxford College, Dana Greene (71G) served as the first female dean after beginning her tenure in 1999. Eight years later, Mary Lee Hardin Willard Dean Jan Love became the first woman to assume deanship at the Candler School of Theology. She will retire this summer.

“I am old enough to have been the first woman in a variety of roles, and I always took the ‘first’ as an opportunity to demonstrate that many people underestimate the strength and capabilities of women leaders,” Love wrote in an email to the Wheel.

The remainder of the University’s schools did not appoint female deans until the past decade.

Erika James acted as the business school’s first and only female dean from 2014 to 2020. Meanwhile, Bobinski became the first woman to hold the role of law school dean in 2019. She will conclude her term in July to be succeeded by Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law Richard Freer. James W. Curran Dean of Public Health M. Daniele Fallin, who has served as dean since 2022, is the first woman to lead the Rollins School of Public Health.

Additionally, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Public Health Claire Sterk was the first and only woman to serve as University president, fulfilling the role from 2016 to 2020.

Oxford College Dean Badia Ahad emphasized the importance of Emory’s leadership representing the diversity of its student body in an email to the Wheel, noting that representation is especially pertinent for women and people of color. 

“A mentor once shared with me the adage, ‘You have to see one to be one,’” Ahad wrote. “It is important that students see a diversity of leaders at Emory because it can validate their experiences, and open the door to possibilities that, perhaps, were once thought too difficult or unattainable to achieve.”

Bobinski echoed Ahad’s statements, highlighting that female students, who make up 54% of the law school’s incoming class, benefit from seeing women in positions of power. Laney Dean Kimberly Jacob Arriola (01PH) wrote that female faculty members and students have told her that seeing her in a leadership role inspired their careers.

Former College Council President Neha Murthy (24C) added that watching how other women lead has positively impacted her during her time at Emory, stressing the importance of having female leaders at all levels.

“It’s not just them holding a title,” Murthy said. “It’s seeing how they are in that capacity and how they can hold an audience and how they can capture a room and the attention there.”  

However, the presence of new female deans has not completely negated larger problems on campus surrounding the treatment of women or Emory’s historic lack of female leadership, according to Arriola, who wrote that women face a “higher level of scrutiny” due to their gender. Additionally, Love wrote that there still are concerns today about sexual harassment on campus, noting that assault is not taken seriously enough.

Murthy expressed a similar sentiment, noting that there is still work to be done.

“We as women are getting those opportunities, but when you still enter a room, we don’t automatically get that respect yet,” Murthy said. “That’s something we have made a lot of progress in getting into the door, but we still need to make sure our voices are heard and not overpowered by others.”

School of Nursing Dean Linda McCauley (79N) claimed that Emory has historically “lagged” behind other universities when appointing women to high leadership positions, while Arriola wrote that Emory needs to hire more female professors, who typically receive a lower pay than their male counterparts.

In 2021, which is the most recent year with statistics about professorship, 35% of full professors at Emory were women, compared to an average of 28.03% at the University’s peer institutions. Almost a decade before, in 2012, only 26.6% of full professors at Emory were women, while peer institutions had an average of 22.7%. 

“Full professors create a pipeline for women deans, and we must continue to work towards gender parity in leadership roles to create a more equitable and just society,” Arriola wrote.

Although Emory still has progress to make, the University is on the right track toward gender equality, McCauley and Arriola wrote.

“Acknowledging the value of the diversity that women in leadership bring and continuing to invest in it can help others see and identify women as natural leaders and, over time, reduce the scrutiny, bias and stress that women leaders often experience today,” Arriola wrote.

Looking ahead, Murthy said she has hope for female leaders at Emory and beyond. 

“It’s much more than just having a role or a title — it’s really gaining that respect for being in that position, and that’s still a struggle that’s still happening,” Murthy said. “I hope down the road, women in power can feel confident and get recognized for all their initiatives and everything that they have done without having to fight extra to get that recognition.”

If you or someone you know experienced sexual assault, you can access Emory’s Department of Title IX at 404-727-0541 and the Office of Respect’s hotline 24/7 at (470) 270-5360. You can reach the RAINN National Sexual Assault hotline 24/7 at (800) 656-4673. You can reach the Atlanta Grady Rape Crisis Center crisis hotline 24/7  at (404) 616-4861 and the Decatur Day League Sexual Assault Care and Prevention crisis hotline 24/7 at (404) 377-1428.

Correction (3/31/2024 at 9:00 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that after the nursing school’s appointment of Julia Miller in 1944, the Emory College of Arts and Sciences became the next school to be led by a woman, when Eleanor Main served as acting dean for seven months in 1987. In fact, the Laney Graduate School became the next school to be led by a woman, when Ellen Mickiewicz served as dean from 1980 to 1985.

Correction (3/27/2024 at 9:30 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that women did not officially begin making up the majority until 2021 when Kimberly Jacob Arriola (01PH) took over as the dean of Laney Graduate School. In fact, women officially began making up the majority in 2019, when Mary Anne Bobinski took over as the dean of Emory Law School.

Correction (3/20/2024 at 7:53 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Ravi Bellamkonda did specify if Emory has been targeting women for leadership positions. In fact, Bellamkonda did not discuss this.

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Hilary Barkey (she/her) (25Ox) is from New York City and plans on majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology. When she’s not studying on the Quad, you can find her playing tennis, reading or talking about baseball and hockey to anyone who will listen.