Deanne D’Emilio is president of Gwynedd Mercy University, a private Roman Catholic institution in Pennsylvania.
The world has changed immensely in the almost 75 years since Gwynedd Mercy University opened as a junior college in Gwynedd Valley, Pennsylvania. But it has sustained a critical constant that has shaped its identity and given it the strength required to face obstacles and seize opportunities: Gwynedd Mercy University was founded by, and has only ever been led, by women.
And these women all had something in common — they were bold. They were guided by strong values, morals and convictions. They stood on principle and believed in service and community. They believed that under their guidance, they could transform the lives of generations, especially the lives of people most in need of opportunity.
I’ve been inspired by these women and made it my mission to carry on their legacy of incorporating modern and forward-looking approaches to meet the needs of the day. Because I know, as women, we haven’t always had the chance to do so.
Bold female leaders don’t just follow trends — they create them. They are willing to take risks, challenge the status quo, and stand up for what they believe in despite opposition or disapproval from others. By leading with confidence and speaking out against injustice, these women set an example for future generations who seek to break down barriers and make their voices heard.
But being bold is not always easy — especially for women. It’s often met with pushback and resistance. Yet, as someone who’s taken bold action throughout my career and seen firsthand how it can create positive change, I want to share advice for young women to do the same.
Trust yourself. Call it cultural or, for me, perhaps generational, but women often doubt themselves more than men. That’s a curse that it’s time to break. Don’t doubt your capabilities — trust you know what you’re doing and have the confidence to take action.
Don’t turn your back on an opportunity. I went into a meeting in 2022 confident and prepared to explain to the board why the university should sell 150 acres of campus property — property I had convinced them to purchase on behalf of the university just four years earlier. The decision more than tripled the university's endowment, setting up the capacity to invest in key initiatives, including the addition of a new healthcare innovation campus. Be bold.
Speak up and stand your ground. As a young attorney, I worked at a law firm where I learned pretty quickly there was a major gender pay gap. So, I spoke up — even though I knew it could cost me my job (though it didn’t) — because it was the right thing to do. When you stand up for what’s right, it sends a powerful message that others can’t ignore.
Become informed. Do your research on current issues and relevant topics so you can speak knowledgeably and confidently about them. When I voiced my concerns about the pay gap, I didn’t go in empty-handed; I was prepared, informed, and well-versed. It made all the difference.
Don’t shrink in the face of others. Women are often held to different standards than our male counterparts, but don’t let this discourage you. Know your value, and don’t let outdated conventions or negative attitudes affect how you see yourself or feel about what you have to offer.
Find mentors and a strong support staff. Connect with experienced female leaders who can provide guidance, advice and support when you need it most. Having a mentor is invaluable in helping you stay focused on your goals and achieving your vision as a leader.
Listen to the other voices in the room and put your ego aside. My leadership style has always been one of collaboration — a participatory approach valuing input from others and thinking about others first. I do not have to be the smartest person in the room, and you do not have to agree with me. This has served me well throughout my career and made it easier to achieve actual progress.
Pay it forward. Lift up other women and create opportunities for them to succeed as well. When there is a strong network of supportive female leaders, everyone benefits.
Bold female leadership is not a trend — it’s a necessity. It takes courage, conviction, and passion to lead with an authentic voice. Now more than ever, we need women who are unafraid to take risks, challenge norms, and stand up for what they believe in — for themselves, and even more so, for others.