Challenging Androcentrism in the Academy: 7 Strategies for Leaders of Academic Institutions

Gender Bias in the Academy - Image of an Academic Library

Confronting gender bias in the academy and seeking gender equity and gender balance requires concerted efforts by senior leadership. Here are seven ways to make a difference.

by Rosalind Spigel, Organizational Development Consultant and Leadership Coach, Spigel Consulting

In this series of seven articles, we have considered leadership qualities and how they are practiced, deployed, and interpreted differently for women and men. Those qualities are:

To support gender balance, we have provided suggestions for individuals, teams, and organizations.

(Note: For the purposes of this series, the perspective is cisgendered, able bodied and living in the US.  I have not addressed multiple genders, gender fluid individuals, race or other intersections of marginalization. Representation within gender is an important conversation. Although this series does not address this conversation directly, it is important to note that bringing only white women into leadership is nether gender equity nor gender balance.)

Summary: Where Androcentrism Holds Us Back from Truly Supporting Women’s Leadership in the Academy

What we have seen over the course of this series is that in terms of leadership distinctions, women are perceived to be stronger in some (empathy, collaboration) and men stronger in others (confidence, assertiveness).  In our androcentric world, and the academy is no exception, men’s leadership strengths are overvalued and women’s leadership strengths are undervalued.

In addition, gender bias, which is tilted against women and favors white masculine men, is held by both men and women. In her article, “Picture a Leader. Is She a Woman?” Heather Murphy (2018) reports that when men and women are asked to draw leaders, they almost always draw men. This exercise literally illustrates how deeply embedded unconscious assumptions are when it comes to recognizing women’s abilities and leadership. And, while women experience the difficulties and barriers of getting into leadership positions, men do not know and are not always aware that these barriers exist. Citing a Catalyst study, Joanne Lipman (2018) writes “The majority of men … report that as far as they are concerned, discrimination doesn’t exist. Sexism has already been solved.”

In academia, despite our egalitarian ideals, “discrimination is institutionalized,” notes Lisa Maatz, a policy adviser with the American Association of University Women. “It’s a part of the culture, it’s a part of the decision-making process. Right now, the assumptions about women’s roles, as stereotypical as they may be, are driving decisions and those decisions disadvantage women” (Ali, 2016).

As we have emphasized in this series, regardless of how skillfully a woman might lead, if the system is tilted against her, it may not matter when she seeks leadership positions. In academia, for example:

  • Women who are pregnant or who have young children “are 132 percent more likely to be working in a contingent position, while men with a young child are 36 percent less likely to be in a contingent position. Contingent positions are non-tenured, adjunct, or temporary jobs that are not secure” (Mason, et al 2013). One interviewee for this series described the experience of a colleague who was not pregnant when she was hired, but was pregnant by the time she relocated and showed up for work. Her offer was revoked.
  • “Fathers with young kids are 35 percent more likely than mothers to get tenure-track positions, and 20 percent more likely to actually secure tenure” (Lipman, 2018).
  • The turnover of female junior faculty is high, and even at the level of case studies, the representation of women is alarmingly low – 90 percent of business school case studies are about men (Lipman, 2018).
  • Cimpian reports that cultural differences between academic disciplines may drive women from both STEM and non-STEM fields, and that obstacles await women who pursue work in academia. “These obstacles may take the form of those in the field thinking she’s not brilliant like her male peers in graduate school.” One striking example is that of Dr. Barres, a sociologist at Stanford who, after transitioning from Barbara to Ben overheard colleagues say that his work was much better than his sister Barbara’s (Lipman, 2018). The Cimpian report notes that other obstacles can include “having her looks discussed on online job boards when she’s job-hunting, performing more service work if she becomes university faculty, and getting less credit for co-authored publications in some disciplines when she goes up for tenure” (2018).
  • And one more obstacle: The gender pay gap, which exists on and off campus (see, means that “women have less disposable income with which to repay their loans after graduating from college, so they require more time to pay back their student debt than do men” (AAUW, 2018).

Confronting and dismantling androcentrism means getting everybody on board. By working together, understanding the impact of systemic and unconscious bias, and recognizing the barriers women face, men and women can address inequalities with policies and behaviors that promote gender balance. The first step is noticing the prevalence and harm that bias does to individuals and systems. Once recognized, the next steps are to draw attention to it, name it, and change it. The challenge is to refrain from prioritizing being “fair” to those who historically have had more greater privileges and resources. Addressing systemic injustice will require courage to face the inevitable criticisms that will come (Le, 2018).

Making the Difference: 7 Strategies for Senior Leaders

In preparation for this article, I conducted interviews with many women in higher education. Their ideas and perspectives have clarified and improved the strategies I share below. Here are seven steps to take for academic institutions that are committed to holding and operationalizing gender balance and equity.

1. Change hiring criteria and practices.

  • One interviewee observed that women applying to be deans who do not have the traditional and expected background and credentials in research and funding are less likely to be hired than men of whom the same is true, even though that background has nothing to do with the job. In many cases, highly talented and accomplished women who have intelligence in connecting people and developing strategies in collaborative ways may be the better candidate.
  • The same interviewee suggested developing hiring criteria which would require each applicant to describe their approach to diversity. Candidates who can’t describe their approach can not advance. In her experience, this created a candidate pool that was balanced by race and gender.

2. Follow up on revised hiring practices with mentoring, coaching, sponsorship, and succession planning.

  • Hiring alone isn’t enough. Set up a mentoring program for women with mentors both inside and outside the institution. Require coaching, mentoring, and training for chair positions and for other leadership, and provide comprehensive faculty career development.
  • Hold current leaders accountable for public sponsorship of who they are advancing.
  • Nadia Bello, Ryerson University, noted that extended professional development has to be conscious, formal, and part of the succession planning. Academic leaders need to be thinking about what future leadership looks like. She provided this example: There is a range of young to middle-aged women who have been at her institution for years; they remain administrative assistants, associate deans, or stuck in other second-tier positions. There is no attention to them, to their aspirations, to the skills they want to develop, or to what else they might want to do.
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3. Make sure institutional change becomes organizational change.

  • An example of an “institutional” level change is revising a policy around hiring practices. An organizational change involves driving that change through the system. People in leadership need to be reminded and trained to hold themselves and others accountable to lead with inclusive values. One interviewee recalled a well-respected dean at a prominent medical school who was asked about his support in moving women into leadership. His response? Part of his annual bonus was tied to diversity in promotions and advancement. This demonstrates both that accountability works and that highly placed allies who turn policy into practice can make an organizational difference.

4. Address unequal workloads, expectations, and tokenism.

  • Women in academic leadership are often overwhelmed with expectations to publish, research, lead, respond to an overstuffed email inbox, serve on committees, and teach, in addition to tending to their life obligations. Institutions must have supports in place for that level of leadership so that they don’t burn out—but at most institutions, the infrastructure is not there yet.
  • Two interviewees noted the following. Committees benefit from gender balance in participation; however, because of their fewer numbers, women end up with more responsibilities that don’t necessarily support their aspirations for promotion.
    • Leaders of committees need to be mindful of inviting already overburdened women to sit on a committee “because of their identity.”
    • Those who are invited need to decide if committees will help them advance their work and career—or if they are the token face.
  • Among the unrealistic expectations of women in leadership positions in the academy, interviewees revealed that women frequently “have to excel at everything they do.” There is less patience and more scrutiny and criticism for women who “slip up”—up to and including appearance, dress, and carriage. Women are called out or not tolerated if they are too “girly” or if they don’t conform to the stereotypes of what academic women are supposed to look like.
  • Providing day care for faculty, administration, and students is another way to not only operationalize gender balance, but also, as Nadia Bello observed, provide a way to address higher education accessibility. (According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “in 2015 just 31 percent of single mothers ages 25 and older held a college degree.”)

5. Publish wages and wage audit gaps and close the wage gap.

  • Equal pay remains an aspiration rather than a reality at too many post-secondary institutions. One of the interviewees I spoke with said their institution was intentionally addressing this obvious problem. Is yours?

6. Check policies for promotion and tenure.

Does the promotion and tenure process at your institution disadvantage women faculty? For example:

  • Are there allowances for maternity leave and ways to “stop the tenure clock” for a time?
  • Do junior faculty who are women have a disproportionate course load when compared with junior faculty who are men?
  • Do junior faculty who are women receive disproportionate “service” responsibilities within their department? In other words, do they have the same time for research that men do?

7. Raise self-awareness.

One theme of this series has been to shift the focus from what women “need to do better” to what their allies, teams, and institutions can do. This isn’t to say individuals don’t all need to do their own work. Everyone can raise their own self-awareness of bias (for one resource, see Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test), underlying assumptions, and understanding of patriarchal, androcentric culture. That self-awareness can be used to contribute to a culture of appreciation, empathy, and compassion.

Use your awareness to be an ally. Look for balance and equity. Champion ongoing equal opportunity, access, treatment, and representation. Call out bias.


In appreciation and gratitude for the women who agreed to be interviewed for this article:

  • Nadia Bello, CTDP, CHRP, MSOD, Manager, Experiential Learning Strategy, Ryerson University
  • Olga J. Blouch, M.Ed., Education Program Associate, Department of Continuing Education, Penn State University
  • Diane Magrane, M.D., Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Emerita Director, ELAM and Founding Director ELATE at Drexel at Drexel University
  • Marcine Pickron-Davis, Ph.D., Chief Diversity and Community Relations Officer, Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
  • Aspasia Zerva, Ph.D., Professor of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, Affiliated Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Drexel University
  • And others who wished to remain anonymous.


Ali, S. S. “‘Motherhood Penalty’ Can Affect Women Who Never Even Have a Child.” NBC. April 11, 2016.

AAUW. “Student Debt Through the Gender Lens.” September 1, 2017.

Cimpian, J. “How our education system undermines gender equity: And why culture change – not policy – may be the solution.” Brookings. April 23, 2018.

Le, V. “The Courage to Be Unfair.” April 30, 2018.

Lipman, J. That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (And Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together. William Morrow, 2018.

Mason, A. M. et al. Do Babies Matter?: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower. Rutgers University Press, 2013.

Murphy, H. “Picture a Leader. Is She a Woman?” The New York Times. March 16, 2018.

The image at the top of the article, depicting the Bibliothèque IHEID, Genève, Switzerland, is by Martin Adams on Unsplash.