How to Be a Real WOMAN Leader in Higher Education

“Obviously we need new definitions–our own personal definitions–of Real Women.”

Dr. Shirley Robinson PippinsDr. Shirley Robinson Pippins

When women consistently follow a traditionally male model of leadership, heavy doses of testosterone “can drift into our systems and lead to our behaving and believing it’s appropriate to behave like Real Men,” warned Dr. Shirley Robinson Pippins, president of Suffolk County Community College NY. She keynoted the Summit for Women Presidents held in Milwaukee WI in June, sponsored by the American Council on Education’s Office of Women in Higher Education.

What stereotypes characterize Real Men and Real Women? Real Men don’t cry, apologize, get manicures or pedicures, change diapers, do housework or compromise. Real Women are a size 2, don’t drive trucks, can’t make up their minds, can’t argue without tears, never sweat, cook nutritional meals every night and never leave home without perfect hair and makeup.

“Obviously we need new definitions—our own personal definitions—of Real Women,” Pippins said. She defines Real Women as those who are smart and value-driven, and who constantly ask themselves tough questions as they seek to lead full, balanced lives.

Why should Real Women become leaders?

Great potential leaders question whether a leadership opportunity in higher education is right for them. “Many of the women currently considering leadership opportunities are the daughters of accomplished women and men,” Pippins said. “They know all too well the cost of leadership.”

Thirteen years ago, Pippins’ now 26-year-old daughter described her mother’s accepting her first presidency as a “frivolous decision that ruined my life.” Pippins says, “Young women of my daughters’ generation often have missed their parents at special events and promised themselves they would never, ever do this to their children.” What would lead them to make the same choices?

On good days on the job, Pippins finds herself saying “I want this job. I love this job,” and “I am making a difference. I am changing the world.” On bad days, however, it’s back to asking herself, “What am I doing? Why am I doing it? How long do I want to do it?”

A strong force keeps Pippins and other Real Women going on these bad days: the ability to make a real difference in people’s lives and see their impact daily.

“Only in America, and only through higher education, can you transform lives and change the future of families and communities,” she said. “This powerful tool called education is too important to be left in the hands of anyone except Real Women—women of stature, women seeking to lead balanced lives, women who often ask themselves:

  • Why am I doing this?
  • What purpose does my work serve?
  • Am I making a difference?
  • Am I making the right decisions?
  • Are the results worth the personal sacrifices?”

What tells Pippins she made the right choice? “Now that I’m a college president, people actually get up at 8 a.m. to hear things I’ve wanted to say my whole life,” she said. “Really good ideas that no one would’ve listened to before.”

Can we minimize impact on our personal lives?

“How do we maintain balance and not lose ourselves in the rough—sometimes almost abusive— world of higher education?” Pippins asked. “As educational leaders, we must lead by example and implement family- and people-friendly standards in our institutions.” She suggested:

  1. Resolve to keep as much control of your life as possible.
  2. Have a clear set of priorities and values.
  3. Maintain your basic sanity.

These first three standards help to make decision-making easier, and keep Real Women grounded during the difficult times. A leader must then decide how to act in accordance with these priorities, how to set her own standards and how to live as the woman she wants to be.

“A fundamental part of finding joy in your life is setting your own standards, defining your own sense of normal,” Pippins said. “To help ourselves and our children, it is important to accept the fact that our households will likely not be ‘normal’ in the traditional sense.” A new family time system could be pizza and movies every Saturday.

4. Surround yourself with people you can trust.

They must be as equally skilled in their areas of expertise as they are trustworthy. When you find them, “You can delegate, and reserve for yourself what only you can do,” she said. “You can relax knowing you are protected.” This can apply to any aspect of your life, from cleaning your house to gathering information and writing drafts of presentations, to redirecting you when you’ve lost sight of the goal or big picture.

5. Don’t get so excited about an advancement opportunity that you forget to negotiate for the personal resources and support necessary to do the job and retain quality of life.

Pippins believes that a Real Woman’s quality of life is largely determined by the position she chooses. “I emphasize your choosing the position as opposed to being selected,” she said. “If you believe you are choosing, you are less likely to end up with an impossible job with inadequate personal and professional resources.”

6. Identify and develop strong relationships with the right people.

 “These relationships will save you time, and will position you to achieve impressive results with the least possible effort.” People whom Pippins considers important to nurture relationships with are more diverse than just politicians and community leaders.

You’ll also need good rapport with your massage therapist, your nail and hair technician, and other personal care specialists to achieve a balanced life. “Treat them well. Tip them well. These people will also make your life easier,” she said. “They will squeeze you in during emergencies and keep you looking professional.”

7. Finally, time your choice to seek advancement.

Your child’s junior and senior years of high school, for example, are not good times. Neither is the middle of a divorce. “When you make significant career steps, you need as much stability in other parts of your life as possible. Plan accordingly.” She challenged Real Women: “Go forth and dare to be the women you want to be. Continue to ask the tough questions. Make frivolous decisions and change the world.”

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