Chronicle of Higher Education, What Happens When Women Run Colleges?:
Democratic, communal, inclusive. That may be the future of college leadership.
Although academe has a progressive reputation and in the past couple of decades has seen more women assume leadership roles, they’re still in the clear minority at the top. Only 30 percent of all college presidents are women, a figure that is bolstered by the portion who are at two-year institutions, where female leaders make up 36 percent, according to the American Council on Education. Recent surveys show women are better represented in the C-suite than in the presidency, but still make up fewer than half the chief academic officers and an even lower proportion of deans.
Aside from the question of parity, does it matter? Some female presidents and senior administrators contacted for this story dismiss the suggestion that they do their jobs any differently, or say that differences between any two leaders are simply matters of individual style. “I’m not so sure it’s about gender as much as it is the culture of the institution and the fit between the values and approach of an individual with that institution,” says Susan D. Stuebner, president of Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire.
But studies suggest that, while the differences are typically subtle and, of course, not universal, women do tend to have leadership styles with some common characteristics.
Research shows that men tend to be more autocratic, says Alice H. Eagly, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University who studies gender and leadership, while women tend to be more democratic, involving other people in decision-making. Women more often than men favor a style of leadership that builds trust with and empowers subordinates. Women in the workplace at all levels tend to display more communal, less self-centered behavior than men — especially when working with other women.
What would higher education look like if male-dominated leadership were not the default reality? Some colleges led predominantly by women offer hints. The differences illuminate higher education’s lingering structural sexism and illustrate the potential benefits that more gender parity in leadership could bring.
Of course, female leaders came up through a system that, for good or for ill, has been shaped by men for centuries. Stuebner notes that two of her most important mentors were men at institutions where she was one of only a few women on the senior team. But she also remembers a board meeting at a previous institution where a trustee, not realizing she was a senior administrator, asked her to clear his lunch plate.
At Harvard University, Judith B. McLaughlin remembers hearing a joke: “You used to go into a room, and if there were largely women in the room, you thought, Well, nothing important’s going to happen at this meeting,” says McLaughlin, a senior lecturer in education and educational chair of the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents. “Women were relegated to mid-management levels, not senior levels, and so you thought, The decision-makers aren’t here.”
The glass ceiling has given way for some top jobs at Harvard and elsewhere, but women still face a gantlet of biases and assumptions that can shape their path upward and sometimes make it more difficult. Even assumptions that might work in a leader’s favor may be flawed. McLaughlin wonders if when a female leader seems more accessible than her male predecessor, is that because she really is or because that’s the gender stereotype?
Other differences may be real, but that doesn’t mean they’re inborn: It’s possible women develop different leadership strategies to cope with people’s perceptions of them.
Think of a maze — a metaphor Eagly, the psychologist, uses in a book she co-wrote, Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders. A maze can’t be beaten by force — it must be navigated, often through trial and error. Research has shown that “when women act in a style that’s recognizably dominant, they tend to get more backlash than a man would get doing the exact same thing,” Eagly says. “If a woman is leading a group that’s mainly men, she has to be quite smart about how she handles that.”
Eagly offers an example: a female friend who rose to provost. At her first meeting with the mostly male deans, “they were all trying to engage in what we psychologists sometimes call male-male competition — I can speak louder and longer than you can,” she says. So her friend started meeting with them in small groups, instead. “It took much more of her time,” Eagly says, “but she could actually talk to them, without them engaging in the ‘I’m going to talk more than you, and I’m the biggest dean in this university’ kind of thing.” ...
Some female presidents discuss amongst themselves another sign that women are not seen as natural leaders: When one steps down, especially if she was the first woman to lead an institution, her successor is typically a man. ...
more boards and search committees are asking for candidate pools that are diverse in gender, as well as in race and discipline, says Vivian Brocard, president of Isaacson, Miller, an executive-search firm that works with colleges. “It is de rigueur now,” she says. Still, some colleges fail to name female finalists. A search for a new president for the University of South Carolina derailed recently after students and faculty objected that not one of the semifinalists for the job was a woman or a person of color.