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Women Who Inspire

Kellye Testy | Dean, University of Washington’s School of Law

September 30, 2014

With a career in law, Kellye Testy has played every role: from student, research aid, professor and most recently, dean. Though she held the dean position previously at another university, it wasn’t until Testy secured the permanent dean position at University of Washington in 2009 that she made school history by becoming the first woman dean at UW’s School of Law.

You became the first female dean in the history of the UW School of Law. Having that honor and being in that position— what do you think that has done for you, as well as for female students at the university? What change do you believe is coming or came from this?

Kellye: It’s an incredible honor to lead this law school and to be the first woman as the permanent dean. I just feel like it’s been a great challenge. It’s been intellectually really interesting. And to understand the inner discipline of the role we can play here and the global footprint that our law school has; which has been something new for me and really exciting.

You know, in terms of thinking about what it means for other people to see me in this office—I don’t think about that a lot. Yet, now that you ask about it…I think that if you walked up to most people on the street and said, “Describe a law school dean,” they wouldn’t describe me. They would describe an older, probably white man and maybe more uptight and different. I think it’s good for our students to see that the model they may have in their heads is not necessarily the model that’s here. I hope what that does is help each of those persons understand that they can be what they want to be . . . that they can achieve what they want to achieve. Any perceived barriers may be more perceived than real. I hope it has some good effect.

You are a first-generation college graduate; how did reaching this milestone change your work ethic?

"I like people. I like to listen to them, help empower them."

Kellye: I grew up not having a lot of windows into expecting to have a professional career. I didn’t know any lawyers or professionals, so being a first-generation college student is huge for me, it really is. People might say, “Oh, I was held back by the fact that I didn’t go to a great private school.” I have been so grateful. As a first generation college graduate, I never take it for granted that I am here. I work in education, and I see education as an amazing privilege. I feel blessed every day that we open our doors to students of a variety of lives and see them grow during the time they are with us. So having that background, I feel every day, with everything I do, that it comes through in some way. I think I see the world differently than I would if I had been something that was routine or expected. I am grateful for that standpoint and always really eager to try and help, so more and more people have that access to education that they deserve. 

What do you think has contributed most to your growing success and mission?

Kellye: I think so much of life is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. You just need to do the work. I think I have a good work ethic, but beyond that there are so many other things that come in. Some of it is luck or timing, but a lot of it is relational.  I like people. I like to listen to them, help empower them. I always had a strong desire to be a good force in some way and I don’t know exactly where that comes from, but I think that is helpful. There are a lot of people that do think about just their own work, but a lot of times you need somebody who is less focused on exactly what they’re doing and more focused on how do you get people to work together. I just always enjoyed that.

Have you ever experienced any objections from people in the workforce due to you being a woman? If so, how did you overcome such matters?

Kellye: That’s an interesting question for me, because I actually don’t feel like I have encountered a lot of inequity due to being a woman. I wouldn’t say that I felt inequity was around my gender, but—my partner is a woman— and so when I was at a private institution where it was very religious, I felt less openness. We are lucky in Seattle because Washington is fairly progressive. However, I wouldn’t say either of those things has been severe, but they are structural to our world so there is no way that anyone is not affected by it. One of the things I think is really important for us to keep in mind is that, just because I didn’t feel it or wasn’t held back by it, doesn’t mean that all women are not. Maybe I am wrong about that, maybe things have happened to me that I don’t know. It has been interesting to me to see a number of law school deans that have become presidents of universities and almost all of them are men even though there are a lot of us women law school deans who have been in a position longer or done as well.

"...I think to be an effective leader, the most important thing you can do is be who you are."

People often wonder about the differences between how men and women lead. How do you answer the question of whether women lead differently than men?

Kellye: There is a difference, but I don’t think it’s due to biology. I think it’s due to the way people feel about power. If you have never in your life not had power you think about leadership differently from those who have always had power. More men have had power than women. So a lot of times women lead differently because they know what it’s like to experience powerlessness. Once you have experienced powerlessness, you know that it feels bad . . . you don’t want others to feel that way. The other thing that is really true about that is the world is—because of gender stereotype— still it accepts authority less well from women, and so it’s harder for a woman to be the command and control sort of leader. They expect women to carry a different persona. That’s unfortunate because I think to be an effective leader, the most important thing you can do is be who you are. I am not a command and control kind of leader, but some women might be. Yet, I think that option is not there for them because it’s less accepted. It’s not about biology and more about power and how you think about it and experienced it that leads to those differences.