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The Tough Road to Leadership as a Woman in Higher Education

Representation matters, writes Marcheta Evans. Here, she offers advice for institutions and educators about the life lessons they need to pass to female scholars (and one for men, too)

Posted in: Faculty Voices

Marcheta Evans

This article was originally published by Times Higher Education

What I’m about to say isn’t a secret: becoming a female higher education leader is hard.

Data from the American College President Study bears this out:

  • 33 per cent of college presidencies are held by women
  • Women aspire to presidency, on average, 3.3 years later than men.

While the number of women who hold graduate and doctoral degrees is increasing, the number of women leaders in higher education is not. This is especially troubling because most students at the undergraduate level are young women.

Representation matters. Our female students, staff and faculty benefit from seeing women in prominent leadership positions. A recent study by the Rockefeller Foundation showed that 65 per cent of Americans feel it’s incredibly important that young women have women leaders to look to as role models within their organisations, and I would wholeheartedly agree.

To create a culture at our institutions that will develop the next generation of diverse female leadership, I believe we must teach the young women in our universities vital life lessons.

Teach young women to know their worth – and their value

When women are presented with a job offer or the possibility of a promotion, they are more likely than men to simply accept the first offer without countering. It’s something I experienced myself as I advanced through the ranks; I was so excited about taking a step forward that I didn’t fight for everything I may have been able to receive.

As administrators, we should be creating a culture of salary and negotiation transparency at our institutions, which is a method proven to be effective in closing the gender wage gap. This will allow women climbing the ladder to know what they should be asking for in a hiring process, and create an environment built on mutual respect between employee and organisation.

Of equal importance is showing women the value they bring that goes beyond dollars and cents. Their life experiences, their decision-making and their voices bring strong and diverse perspectives to any situation, whether they are in a leadership position or not.

We can do this by truly including our future female leaders – and all women wherever possible – in the conversations at every level of the institution that will move it forward and give them a true seat at the table long before they’re a dean, provost or president.

I do this in two ways: being an active mentor and a sponsor to women who want to advance in the academy and other areas of professional life. If there is a vacancy or position that I know will be a great fit for a colleague, I actively seek to ensure they are considered.

Teach young female faculty and students that it’s OK to put themselves first

I know this from personal experience. At times, women feel they need to be Superwoman: wife, mother, professional. And amid putting everything and everyone else first, we lose sight of our own well-being and our own ambitions.

As I progressed in my career, I developed the ability to vocalise my goals when people would want me to serve on a committee or take on an initiative. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to help or wasn’t a true participant in the growth of my institution. I needed to find the proper balance that would keep me moving forward.

The confidence to politely but firmly say: “No” in certain situations – and the ability to give a clear reason for doing so – will help anyone to keep their professional goals on track and send a clear signal about their aspirations. Over time, this produces a profile of a professional who is driven and has a clear plan for their future that others can visualise.

Teach future women leaders how to check all the boxes

As we identify future women leaders, we need to show them how to take the professional steps necessary to continue on the path to leadership roles. But we also need to show them how to check all the boxes during an interview that will not show up on their résumé.

We must teach them how to truly evaluate not just an institution they are interviewing with but also the people they will be speaking with during that process. They must learn how to size up an institution’s culture and whether it is truly a fit with their values.

We must teach our future leaders, particularly women of colour, never to compromise their true, authentic selves to reach their leadership goals and to proudly express their identity in dress, hairstyle and accessories.

Teach men about the barriers that women face – and how to remove them

Since they often do not experience it themselves, men are at times naive to the barriers women face in advancing to leadership positions. So, it is more important than ever for women to bring men into these tough conversations, and to give them insight into exactly what our journey on the path to leadership is like and the obstacles we face.

When we do this, we engage in a dialogue that is educational, not adversarial. Many men are willing and able to be good allies and partners, like my colleague, Montclair State University president Jonathan Koppell.

We can come together to ensure that women in higher education are developed at every stage of their careers in a culture that is inclusive and supportive of their aspirations. I’m living proof of what is possible when opportunity is given for women to realise their potential, and it is our duty, on International Women’s Day and all the days in between, to create an environment where a journey like mine is no longer the exception.

Marcheta Evans is chancellor of Bloomfield College of Montclair State University.