Scaling the Academic Walls

Historically, women have not fared well in the senior administrative ranks of academia.

Isn’t it time to change that?

Headlined Covid Crisis Shows Why We Need More Female Leaders, Fortune  notes:

“The pandemic has presented us with a real-time experiment in leadership, and the data shows that we are in good hands when women are at the helm of nations and companies alike. Women aspiring to leadership positions in business have a unique opportunity to show their value, and they should seize it. “

“Women have proved time and again they are able to excel when given the reins. Whether maintaining morale in challenging work environments or ensuring project teams can prosper in difficult circumstances, this crisis has exposed what many of us already knew: Women are underrepresented at the expense of society.”

Research tells us what women, like me, know, even without the hard cold facts — that while progress has been made, significant challenges remain.

Women hold the fewest senior administrative positions and are the lowest paid among higher ed administrators. And, it’s even worse for women and men of color who made-up only 14% of these roles in 2018, the last year for which numbers are available.

What gives?

It’s not only that top jobs for experienced administrative women are too few, and too far between, which has been especially true during COVID. It’s also true that when we get there, we come up against ingrained, outdated systems that work against us in our search for upward institutional mobility and expanded opportunity.

Old habits die hard — if they die at all.

I’ve struggled with the unwritten rule that senior women should be seen and not heard at several points in my career as a higher ed vice president. In retrospect, I was terribly naïve.

This kind of bias is insidious and under the surface. But it is alive and well, in thought, if not in deed, on far too many campuses. As recently as 2019, I was one of only three women — amongst a dozen or more white men at the cabinet-level — where silence was rewarded and opinions discouraged.

It took me a long time to see this for what it was and to realize that open and equal problem solving amongst one’s peers remains aspirational in the stratified world of higher education.

According to Inside Higher Ed’s Women and Leadership: Challenges and Opportunities, “The few women in administrative leadership positions may not fit neatly into male styles and cliques, and they may become more isolated and yet increasingly visible for scrutiny. People often judge their actions and words from a white, privileged lens. Solo status — being the only representative of a social category in an otherwise homogenous group — exacerbates effects of such stereotyping and isolation, which can negatively impact how such women are evaluated.”

Even before the pandemic, getting recognition for our contributions and successes was elusive. But there is a reason for optimism. Amidst the transformational changes of the last year, women leaders have shown — again and again — that they can not only rise to meet the challenges but can do so in ways that have the potential to transform a biased and anachronistic system.