Seen But Not Heard | Women in Higher Ed

It comes as no surprise to me that women in higher ed find themselves in a double bind: hired to lead but only relied upon to manage.

Here we are in 2022. The playing field, we’re told, is level. But, oh, the landmines.

While progress has been made in the last decade, leadership in many colleges and universities remains stuck in the past, where biases against women’s leadership are all too prevalent.

According to Ruth Sealy, professor of responsible leadership at the University of Exeter Business School, “Research on performance reviews shows us women get more vague feedback, not tied to specific business outcomes, than men, and are significantly more likely to be critiqued for being ‘too aggressive’ than men, which is based on our gender role stereotypes.”

In my own experience, accomplished women with stellar credentials are in demand for senior leadership roles in higher ed. They are wooed with promises of parity, of a seat at the decision-making table, of peer-to-peer collaboration, of support and recognition of their expertise.

Too often, women find that “leading” is code for “managing,” for keeping quiet when opinions on issues and policy arise. The prevailing wisdom remains that women continue to be seen as emotional and combative in exhibiting actual leadership ability.

Perhaps, as Professor Sealy points out in a recent article in the UK publication People Management, the pandemic may offer hope of change.

“Leaders showing these traits,” she observes,” [traits that are] traditionally perceived as more feminine, have received much praise during the pandemic. So it will be interesting to watch how our ideals of leadership shift to more people and purpose-focused responsible leadership.”

For the sake of a much-needed new leadership model in higher education, let’s hope that she is right.

Tell me your story. I’m compiling first-hand accounts of the challenges women face in higher education and would love to hear yours. Everything you tell me will be strictly confidential and not used in any way without your permission. You can email me at lyn@lynchamberlin.com.