EI Women and Leadership and The Women’s Network Host Lieutenant Colonel Donna Whittaker
By Ella Prieto, Assistant News Editor
On Tuesday, the Eisenhower Institute’s (EI) Women and Leadership program and The Women’s Network hosted a lecture by Lieutenant Colonel Donna Whittaker. The event took place from 6 to 7 p.m. in CUB 208.
The event began with an introduction by two students in the Women and Leadership program. Rachel Herr ’26 described what the program entails and explained how the group explores interactions between gender and leadership. Abby Dryden ’24 then introduced Whittaker and listed her many accomplishments, such as receiving a doctorate in business administration from the Florida Institute of Technology and conducting post-doctoral work in strategic studies at the Army War College.
To begin her talk, Whittaker played a video of poet Maya Angelou reciting her work “Phenomenal Woman.” She explained her reasoning for starting with this video.
“[I hope that] you understand being a woman is indeed very, very phenomenal,” Whittaker said. “It has challenges, but it’s phenomenal.”
Whittaker thanked The Women’s Network and the Women and Leadership program for welcoming her to Gettysburg College and asked the audience questions about what they hoped to get out of college. Student answers included gaining skills for a future job, academic and social abilities, networking skills, knowledge and personal improvement. Whittaker then explained that the underlying thread in all of those answers was that they add value to the student.
She elaborated that adding value is a key part of working for an organization or corporation, but many women struggle due to a lack of mentorship. This idea contributed to Whittaker’s doctoral dissertation titled “Barriers to Mentoring Relationships for Women of Color in Corporate Leadership.”
“The main thing I wanted to get out of this [dissertation] was what was the impact. When women are in the workforce and they’re not mentored, how does that affect the organization,” explained Whittaker.
She then expanded on formulating a dissertation for the audience and showed a road map of the steps taken to accomplish hers. Whittaker clarified why she decided to research a corporate environment.
“I wanted to research in corporate environments because corporations are very impactful for our society, especially as a capitalist society,” Whittaker said.
She discussed the recent push by corporate culture to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). While it is a great initiative, it has also been difficult to fulfill because increased diversity can lead to tension. However, Whittaker explained that working through such tension is worth it.
“If you can create an environment where people can contribute [with diverse perspectives], then you’re going to get better results,” Whittaker said.
Whittaker observed that part of the issue with DEI was the lack of women, especially women of color, in positions of power in corporations. She said that when there are few women leaders, there are less mentorship opportunities for women.
Whittaker transitioned into the importance of mentorships and stated her dissertation’s problem statement: “Mentoring relationships are instrumental in developing women leaders. Organizations miss out on talent from the workforce when lacking these mentorships.” Looking at background research from 1991 and 2008, she developed her purpose to show the barriers to mentoring relationships for women of color through a human capital lens.
Whittaker explained that human capital, which can be defined by Adam Smith as the acquired and useful abilities gained through education, study, or apprenticeship, was vital to her research. Human Capital Theory served as the conceptual framework for her dissertation.
Whittaker described human capital as “a critical resource for a firm.” However, she stated that human capital is often underused because employees are not motivated to their fullest capabilities in their work. This often occurs when there is a lack of mentorship and mostly affects women of color. This absence hurts firms, as mentorships not only promote human capital and value, but also support DEI initiatives by helping people become engaged in their organizations.
After explaining the importance of mentorship, Whittaker revealed what previous research has found as barriers to mentorship. These barriers included a lack of access, misinterpretation of approach, disapproval of others, fear of initiating and unwilling mentors. Whittaker expanded on this by conducting a qualitative study of nine women of color in Fortune 500 companies.
Whittaker’s findings showed new barriers such as a lack of awareness, a lack of emotional intelligence, limited leadership capability and a narrow scope of human capital. The implications of this were that organizations were suffering from a loss of talent, diminished engagement, reduced job satisfaction and withheld human capital.
Whittaker recommended actions for organizations to dissolve or relieve these issues, which included establishing formal mentoring programs, combining mentoring with coaching managers and encouraging mentoring culture to support awareness of human capital. The study implied that the barriers may be generalized, the intersection of race and gender should not be ignored when looking at this topic and that mentoring culture should infuse a mindset of human capital value.
Then, Whittaker described why she completed the study. As one of the few women in various military settings, she struggled with her human capital value and mentorship opportunities. Upon reflecting, Whittaker sees that her supervisors mentored her but that she was not aware of it at the time, which decreased its value. Thus, she wanted to see how many other women were in similar situations as her, prompting her dissertation.
Whittaker stated key takeaways for the audience. The first of these was to have a self-concept, which is to think about how you see yourself and how you want to be seen. Second, she said individuals should have a goal of being mentorship-minded.
“Whenever you are engaging in the world, you can be a mentor to someone else,” said Whittaker.
The audience then asked Whittaker questions. This began with a student asking if formal mentorships can be as impactful as ones that occur naturally.
“I think they can if people understand what mentoring is about. Because when you’re helping someone and you’re not thinking about yourself, then you give that space for a relationship to naturally be mentoring,” answered Whittaker.
Next, an audience member asked if anything unexpected came up for Whittaker when writing her dissertation. She answered that lack of awareness and understanding the meaning behind lack of awareness was unexpected for her.
“Sometimes people just don’t know what they don’t know. So you have to cut people some slack. You can’t assume that they know what they’re doing,” said Whittaker.
Another student brought up the issue of diverse communities connecting, and the struggles that can emerge from it. Whittaker explained that for that issue to be resolved, people in different communities must be open to new experiences and that mentorships can still form across those communities.
The following question asked if conducting interviews and learning from them invoked any change in Whittaker or the women she was interviewing. She answered that she and the interviewees saw how adding value to their work was empowering.
Another student asked how Whittaker implemented her results into her own life.
“I believe in being a mentorship minder,” said Whittaker. “So now, whenever I can help, wherever I can encourage, I do.”
An audience member then asked if Whittaker would have done anything differently in her research knowing what she does now. She answered that she would prepare the questions for the interviews more, and she thinks that it would have been more impactful if she had completed the study earlier in her life.
Lastly, a student asked how people can move forward while focusing on being respectful with DEI initiatives and also expanding professional circles, especially in terms of gender. Whittaker explained that being aware of people and focusing on their backgrounds is helpful. In terms of gender, she answered that it is best to not get too wrapped up in interactions and to instead always keep a professional manner when interacting.
To conclude the event, The Women’s Network Co-Presidents Jules Blech ’24 and Ella Seaman ’25 thanked Whittaker and shared upcoming future events for The Women’s Network.