Tips to Help Women Leaders Succeed in a Male Environment

Top leadership in student affairs used to be overwhelming male, but women are making significant inroads. Five women shared their pearls of wisdom from their long and successful experience.

Drs. Hong, Clement, CherreyDrs. Hong, Clement, Cherrey

Top leadership in student affairs used to be overwhelmingly male, but women are making significant inroads. Five women senior student affairs officers spoke at the NASPA annual conference in Orlando FL in March:

  • Dr. Patricia Whitely, University of Miami FL
  • Dr. Linda Clement, University of Maryland
  • Dr. Royster Harper, University of Michigan
  • Dr. Cynthia Cherrey, Princeton University NJ
  • Dr. Luoluo Hong, University of Hawaii at Hilo

They shared pearls of wisdom from their long and successful experience in navigating a largely male environment. Women all over campus can benefit from their tips.

Shaped by crisis

Hurricane Andrew of 1992 marked a turning point in the career of Dr. Patricia Whitely at the University of Miami. At the time, it was the most costly hurricane in U.S. history. When the storm struck Florida, Whitley had already been at the university for 10 years, working up from running a dorm of 400 students to associate director of residence halls. Other leaders were away, so she worked with the president for two weeks to see the campus through the emergency.

A few years later their longtime VP for student affairs was approaching retirement. Asked what qualities to look for in choosing his successor, he replied, “Somebody who could handle a hurricane.”

Meanwhile Whitely had completed her doctorate and became director of student life. Approached by a headhunter with an attractive offer at another school, she told her president about it. The next day he stopped Miami’s search; the best candidate was already on campus. She became the new VP for student affairs in 1997, at age 37.

“Take risks. Go after what you want. Only you can put your best foot forward,” she advised at NASPA.

Her tips for success in a male environment:

  • Be better prepared than the men in the room.
  • Have data and metrics to support your opinion. Men tend to speak more off the cuff.
  • Network informally the way men do. She plays pickup basketball in summer, to network and gain respect.

Take a risk

Author of Effective Leaders in Students Services: Voices from the Field (1992), Dr. Linda Clement writes and speaks from decades of experience. She first joined the University of Maryland staff nearly 40 years ago in resident life and orientation. Over the years she rose to director of undergraduate admissions and assistant VP for academic affairs.

When the president needed an interim chief of staff, everyone else refused to do it. Clement agreed to take the risk. Working for a limited period in the president’s office let her see what it was like to be an officer of the university. Two decades as VP for student affairs have confirmed that it’s what she wants to do.

Her tips:

  • Think in advance terms; be prepared.
  • Network with your colleagues.
  • “I want to be the smartest person in the room.”

Different journey “It’s a different journey for us women of color,” Dr. Royster Harper said. In 30 years at the University of Michigan, she has found the need for breadth of understanding, wide exposure and a very diverse network.

She was new to the vice presidency, still an interim, when students occupied part of the Michigan Union tower for 27 days in February 2000. Members of the Students of Color Coalition— American Indians, African Americans and others—took over the office of an exclusive student club to protest its past ritual abuse of American Indian artifacts and traditions.

They found authentic Indian artifacts and memorabilia gathering dust in the attic. Old photos showed white male club members wearing feather headdresses and loin cloths or holding a sacred pipe in one hand and a beer in the other.

Mediation fell to Harper. The club, which had just started admitting women that fall and whose members were unaware of past practices, issued an apology and agreed to discontinue all references to Indian culture, returning authentic artifacts to the Indian community.

She urged everyone to engage in dialog and resist the temptation to label either side good or bad. The incident, which ended in all secret societies being removed from the tower, opened a wider discussion of campus racial issues.

Harper survived her hazing, as she calls the protest at the tower, to become VP for student affairs.

Her tips:

  • Keep your eye on the bigger agenda. Be willing to take a pass on some issues; you have bigger things to do.
  • Make your understanding explicit. Ask, “Are you saying . . .?”
  • Remember: When emotions run high, cognition is low.

Expect surprises

Unlike the first three panelists, Dr. Cynthia Cherrey has relocated several times during her career. She moved from VP for student affairs at Tulane University LA to VP for campus life at Princeton University NJ in August 2010.

One of eight children growing up on a family farm in Minnesota, she was a first generation college student at Saint Cloud State University MN. She researched schools and decided where she wanted to work. Her third job was at the University of Denver, where she earned her PhD. Her husband, in sales for a Fortune 500 company, lived and worked in Dallas.

“It was the early 1980s, a very different time,” Cherry said. He got transferred to his company’s headquarters in Ohio. At his boss’s house for cocktails, the boss asked her when she was moving to Cincinnati. I’m not, she replied. He warned that she was ruining her husband’s career.

That boss got transferred out and the new boss transferred her husband to Denver to be with her. “We were the first couple to flip it,” she said. She has since worked in academic and student affairs at the University of North Texas, the University of Southern California and Tulane, where she was part of the leadership team following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“You have to be flexible. Expect surprises,” she said. When headhunters call, be open to unexpected opportunities. Give the headhunters other names to consider; share the wealth.

Other tips:

  • Don’t apologize for being late; men don’t. Do apologize for your mistakes and own up to them.
  • Respond to praise: “Thank you,” not “It was nothing.”
  • Don’t make a decision before its time. When its time comes, be decisive and move on.

Create a ‘new you’

Unlike her “sheroes” who tended to stay in one place or several places, Dr. Luoluo Hong relocated for jobs seven times in 20 years. She grew up in Baltimore, oldest daughter of immigrants from Taiwan. She served as dean of students at Shepherd College, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Arizona State University west campus before she became vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Hawaii at Hilo in January 2008.

Her other titles include associate professor in public health leadership and education in the UH Hilo college of pharmacy and level 85 human warlock in the online game World of Warcraft.

Dedicated to women’s issues, Hong directed the Women’s Resource Center at Arizona State and has worked extensively to prevent sexual assault and other violence.

“The irony for Asian/Pacific Islanders is that we’re seen as competent, so we’re given more work,” she said. She has more choices now that her many moves have finally brought her to the rank of senior student affairs officer.

Moving from place to place offers opportunities to learn new things and “create a new you,” she has learned.

Strength and emotion

Women who are visibly strong and competent are seen as less likable, unlike men. Unconscious bias puts women leaders in a double bind. Panelists shared their insights. Be careful, you can get stereotyped as aggressive, Whitely warned. “I’ve gotten softer edges as I’ve grown older. I still have to assert myself,” she said. A sports announcer described University of Miami President Donna Shalala as a pit bull; would they have said that about a guy? People fight about money and space. You will be more successful if you stay calm and lower your voice.

“Raising your voice and being assertive is a positive,” Clement responded. She thinks it is fine to get excited, but choose your battles carefully. When and how much emotion to show depends on the situation.

Cherrey emphasized self-authorship and authenticity. She said she is known to be even-keeled, but it’s okay to show emotion. Be direct: Never speak from defensiveness. “Be clear about the consequences of emotion.

Be prepared to face them,” Harper said. With the wisdom that comes with getting older, she knows there are some external things she can’t change.

Current leadership norms are based on men’s styles, but we need diversity because each kind of leadership is different, Hong noted. While you owe it to your students and staff to be authentic, sometimes taking a traditional role can help you succeed. “You have to pick which hill to die on.”

When your boss moves on

Administrators serve at will, with no fixed term in their contracts. When the president who hired them departs, top administrators are vulnerable. Those who stay may find the new president has quite different expectations.

“Your situation can change on a dime,” Whitely said. She reported to a provost who was very supportive, a chemist still teaching chemistry at age 82. Her next provost was younger and had a very different vision of where to take Miami University. “He loved metrics. I had to change my style,” she said. Changes happen every day and you need to adjust. Be confident in what you bring to the table.

Institutional culture can change with personal style. Cherrey worked for a boss who was a scientist. “I told her, these are the facts,” she said. The same approach worked with her next boss, an engineer. At one university where she worked, the student affairs leaders were expected to manage the information the president received about students. By contrast, Princeton’s President Shirley Tilghman has an informal, open-door style and meets with students herself.

When Michigan’s President Mary Sue Coleman was appointed in 2002 and before she arrived on campus, Harper went to Iowa to meet with her. She also called someone who had worked with Coleman to ask how the prospective president liked to get her information. After Coleman took office, Harper worked like a dog. “All your past work is forgotten,” she said.

Sometimes turnover at the top means senior executives lose their jobs for reasons beyond their control. Clement encouraged listeners to scope out the job scene constantly, throughout their careers. Involuntary job loss is unpleasant, but preparation can help you to land on your feet.

Apply their wisdom for success throughout your career.


Dr. Cynthia Cherrey,

On Breaking Down Patriarchy

“Men have to learn to define leadership more broadly, to include women leaders. Women have to take a risk and put themselves out there as leaders.”Dr. Cynthia Cherrey, VP, Princeton U.

“It really isn’t a competition. There is enough. There is a place for all of us.”Dr. Royster Harper, VP, U of Michigan

“Think of it as a symphony. Sometimes one instrument is stronger while others are quiet. Then another is allowed to stand out. That is the model we need to use.”Dr. Patricia Whitely, VP, U of Miami

Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2013, May). Tips to Help Women Leaders Succeed in a Male Environment. Women in Higher Education, 22(5), 1-3.

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