Her Own Way to the Top

May 17, 2016


It’s nothing revelatory: Women are critically underrepresented in top leadership roles, period. But this is especially true in the areas of business, politics, and education. Knowing that, it’s crucial to hear and draw inspiration from stories of women who have overcome obstacles of all sizes and still risen to the top. Roberta “Bobbi” Cordano, president of Gallaudet University, has one of those stories.

Gallaudet University President Roberta Cordano

Gallaudet University President Roberta Cordano

Cordano, who is deaf and leads the world’s only university designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, also grew up with a sister who is deaf. Successful leaders are passionate about impacting other people’s lives in a meaningful way, and Cordano’s passion was sparked at the age of 13. Her family struggled to get the local school district to provide American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters for her sister, a top student, because the district claimed that she didn’t need them. Realizing early on that equal access is a fundamental right, not a privilege, inspired her to pursue a career as a lawyer and become a leader in education, public policy, and health care in her community.

She began her career as an assistant attorney general for the State of Minnesota. There, she served on the Supreme Court Advisory Committee for Court Interpreters, authoring the statewide rule that assures access for all non-English language users in the courts. Later on, she shifted to the health care sector to promote accessibility for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. And before coming to Gallaudet University, Cordano was the vice president of programs for the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation in Minnesota, where she focused on diversity and equity initiatives. Amid all this, she accomplished one of her proudest achievements as a founding member of the Metro Deaf School, a bilingual-bicultural charter school in St. Paul, Minnesota. Talking about the scope of her life experiences, Cordano explains, “I realize now the purpose of those various career paths: They all gave me the skills I need to lead Gallaudet.”

Since taking on the presidency of Gallaudet University at the beginning of January 2016, Cordano has already begun implementing her vision for the school. In addition to leading the development of the university’s new strategic plan, she has been connecting with the Gallaudet community on and off campus. Only a few days after taking office, she had to respond to the 2016 “Snowzilla” blizzard. When campus dorms and the cafeteria lost power during the storm, Cordano and the Gallaudet staff and students worked together to temporarily relocate students, move food service to another location on campus, and clear sidewalks and pathways. She also invited families in the school’s off-campus apartments to stay at her own house for a night of socializing and a pancake breakfast! This is just one example of her ability to act quickly in a crisis and bring people together.

When it comes to the barriers that face women leaders, Cordano is optimistic. Instead of allowing prevalent misconceptions about women’s role in the workplace to pervade her own outlook, she focuses on positive examples of other women leaders in order to persist and achieve her goals. Her mother — the first deaf woman to become a chief medical technologist of a medical lab in a U.S. hospital — is one of her main role models. Cordano believes that a leader must set goals and execute actions to achieve her vision. Leadership requires “engaging with all stakeholders, inspiring others, and learning what others think and feel,” she says — all of which women are particularly adept at.

Developing future leaders is an important part of Cordano’s role as president of Gallaudet. As a deaf woman, she leads by example for deaf and hard-of-hearing people who aspire to leadership. She sees herself as someone who’s proven that any person is capable of achieving anything they aspire to. She places a lot of importance on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and she strives to provide all students with opportunities to lead lives of service and purpose. While there are many ways to close the gender gap in leadership, she particularly emphasizes the importance of mentoring to develop students’ leadership skills and help them lead in their communities.

Cordano, who is married with two sons, wants women to know, “We can be executives, presidents, CEOs, vice presidents, and also mothers, spouses, sisters, and daughters.”

This post was written by AAUW Research Intern Grace Handley.



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