We all know the academy can be an unfriendly place for women. But exactly why is it so hard for women to succeed in higher education leadership, and what can we do about it?
Dr. Deborah Rhode, professor of law and director of the Center on Ethics at Stanford University CA, discussed the challenges women face in a keynote address at the American Council on Education Office of Women in Higher Educa-tion’s Northern California network meeting in San Francisco in March.
Rhode began with her story, which demonstrated how far we’ve come. When she arrived at Stanford 25 years ago, she was only the second woman on a faculty of 36. There were no women’s organizations, committees or events on campus—except for the faculty wives’ tea, to which she was not invited.
It was the same at Stanford’s law school, where women were only 5% of faculty and 2% of tenured faculty. And when someone did raise the “woman issue,” the response was not positive. “What is striking to me now is how little of this was striking to me then,” she said. “It was just how law and life in the academy were.”
Society has changed since then, but academic leadership has made only a partial transformation. Women are the majority of participants at the bottom—60% of undergraduates—yet are severely underrepresented in top leadership—20% of college and university presidents.
It’s the same in other elite professions, and in general cultural leadership in America. Although women today now assume powerful and influential positions, we have yet to claim the highest, most visible positions in politics, business management and law. While the United States is not the only country lagging behind, it’s not pushing the women’s agenda. Rhode pointed out that during her writings, the U.S. ranked 66th in female political representation—behind Si-erra Leone.
What holds women back, in public and private sectors?
Women’s “choices.” The most common and convenient explanation, said Rhode, is a woman’s “choice” to opt out of full-time work to attend to domestic responsibilities. But what that theory doesn’t address is the factors that lead to women being forced to make that choice—and the lack of attention to the decisions that men make, as spouses, em-ployers and policy leaders, and how they affect women. These “choices” are therefore socially constructed and con-strained, and offer only a partial explanation.
Gender stereotypes are another obstacle for women. Women seeking leadership roles are caught in a Catch-22: if they’re assertive like a man, they’re considered abrasive, and they’re criticized whether they’re feminine or not. Although recent leadership theories have begun to embrace the traditionally feminine qualities like cooperation and collaboration, it’s the masculine qualities of dominance, authority and assertiveness that are still associated with leadership. And more than 100 studies have confirmed that women receive lowered ratings when they adopt masculine styles.
Women who are mothers face even more of a tradeoff, as stereotypes of motherhood are often inconsistent with images of leadership. Having children makes women appear less competent and able to meet workplace demands—but not men. As Rhode pointed out, the term “working father” has none of the baggage of “working mother.”
In-group favoritism/gender bias. Studies show that people feel most comfortable with others who are most like them, and they tend to reward these people with favorable evaluations, rewards and opportunities.
Consider presumptions of competence, which disadvantage women not only in hiring but also in informal networks like mentoring, contacts and support—all crucial for advancement. In surveys of upper-level managers, almost half of women of color and almost a third of white women point to a lack of influential mentors as a challenge that hinders their advancement.
Gender roles at home vs. inflexible workplaces. “Ironically, the home is no more an equal opportunity employer than is the workplace,” said Rhode, pointing out that domestic matters are the only area in which presumptions of com-petence are reversed—leading to women shouldering an unequal burden. Deeply-rooted double standards at home mean that women receive mixed messages about where their commitments should lie, leading them to feel that what-ever they are doing is wrong.
Gender imbalances also affect career development. While men typically have free time to socialize after work, to network, meet with mentors and pick up tips, women usually have to pick up kids, dry cleaning, dinner and the house. “If women are choosing not to ‘run the world,’” said Rhode, “it’s partly because men are choosing not to run the washer/dryer.”
Inflexible workplace structures. Leadership positions that require total availability are particularly challenging to women, who juggle demanding family commitments. Thanks to steadily increasing hourly requirements and technologi-cal innovations that allow work to be completed away from the office, most women in upper level positions report lacking sufficient personal or family time.
As long as caretaking is regarded primarily as an individual rather than social responsibility, said Rhode, women’s work in the home will continue to limit their opportunities in the outside world.
It’s not always fun
Another issue is the reluctance of many talented female academics to pursue administrative opportunities. As the title of a widely circulated article stated, “It’s Lowly at the Top.” Paperwork, meetings and office face-time can become tedi-ous; those with ambitious agendas often find themselves bogged down in institutional red tape. Couple this with ten-sions between administration and faculty, and it’s easy to see why women might not choose the administrative route.
What would make administrative roles more appealing for women? Start by changing the structure of meetings. Instead of forcing people to endure mind-numbing meetings, in which one participant hijacks the proceedings and veers off onto an obscure topic, work to establish concrete structures—and hold participants accountable for staying on task.
Working to reduce ego-driven bad behavior is another step toward making administrative jobs more desirable. When academics appear as panelists, lecturers and conference participants, ego can lead them to display a range of offensive behaviors, from self-absorption and self-promotion to pontification and monopolization. All of this strutting and status-displaying, and the in- and out-group hierarchies can be a real turn-off to women, who value collaboration and cooperation, not egocentricity.
“None of this behavior is unique to academics,” said Rhode, “but that should not absolve the profession of responsibility for better responses.” To combat bad behavior, she suggests role modeling, mentoring and informal sanctions.
Academic leaders, said Rhode, need to do more to “publicly shame and satirize the most egregious conduct.” Higher education periodicals could cover the subject more frequently and in more depth, and programs for graduate students and for new faculty members could include sessions on campus etiquette and on conference do’s and don’ts.
Status anxiety among academics should also be addressed, especially for those at the early stages of their academic careers. She wished she’d known while attending her first Association of American Law Schools annual meeting that the sense of marginalization she felt was common, and almost “universally shared.” Her junior colleagues, she said, are relieved to hear her say that even after attending the meetings for a quarter century and serving as the association’s president, she still walks into the mass reception feeling as invisible as they do.
Making the leap
She advised women who pursue administration to:
- Know the job. Take it because of, not despite, the daily routine. Don’t take it for the title, or assume that you can offload basic tasks.
- Keep an eye on the larger picture—the cause or the institution you care about.
- Find and take satisfaction in small wins.
- Find a way to make a difference.
- Consult others widely.
- Never shoot the messenger.
- Set boundaries.
- • Redefine work.
Creating a more inclusive environment for women will lead to increased representation in academic leadership, which just might effect a change in other areas of society.
Contact Dr. Deborah Rhode at