Challenging Androcentrism in the Academy: Creating Environments that Empower Risk Taking and Confidence in Women Leaders

Risk Taking Women Leaders - Photo of a Woman Mountain Climbing

In a culture of androcentrism, women are likely to be stymied by a reluctance to take risks. Moreover, women who have a well-developed sense of confidence often present it differently from men. How do we shift the culture within our institutions?

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

In this fifth article in our series on Challenging Androcentrism in the Academy, we’ll look at a set of leadership traits and behaviors we identified earlier in the series: confidence, achievement drive, and tempering assertiveness.

  1. How women leaders exercise these competencies.
  2. How androcentrism and implicit bias limit our ability to recognize these competencies in women leaders in higher education.
  3. How we can take steps to improve this situation – at the organizational level, at the team level, and as individuals.

If you find this article useful, you may also be interested in the upcoming conference Women’s Leadership Success in Higher Education.


“Confidence isn’t optimism or pessimism, and it’s not a character attribute. It’s the expectation of a positive outcome.” ― Rosabeth Moss Kanter

In an androcentric, male-dominated setting, women are likely to be stymied by a reluctance to take risks. When someone fears she will be judged differently, she is less likely to go out on a limb, step up, or raise her hand. For this reason, going for an assignment without knowing in advance exactly how to accomplish it generally takes more courage for a woman. Research shows that this confidence gap between men and women plays a role in different levels of academic success, occupation choices, and career progression, and is a significant factor as to why there are fewer women in high-ranking positions (Sarsons and Xu, 2015).

Women who have a well-developed sense of confidence often present it differently from men. Men often express confidence in their own abilities and authority. Women often express not only confidence in themselves, but also in their teams and organizations, giving credit where credit is due. Women also use collaboration as a leadership strategy more frequently; this helps them overcome their reluctance to take risks. For women, confidence and authority is more frequently expressed through power sharing.

Hesitancy in expressing confidence, as Mika Brzezinki notes in Knowing Your Value: Women, Money, and Getting What You’re Worth, doesn’t mean women aren’t equal to the task. In the book, Brzezinki tells her story of seeking a pay raise multiple times. At one point, she made 14 times less than Joe Scarborough, despite her equal talent and competence. Aware of the inequity, Scarborough supported her requests for better pay. That demonstrates a key role men can play in addressing androcentrism within their institutions — by mentoring women colleagues in building confidence and by helping them get equitably compensated. Even so, in that system as in most, Brzezinki’s pay is still far below Scarborough’s — by about one half.

Achievement Drive

Achievement drive, one of the traits of emotional intelligence identified by Goleman, et al., is defined as the willingness to take risks and the drive to do more and better than expected. If the number of women starting their own enterprises is any indication, women have plenty of drive. “From 2007-2018 the number of women-owned businesses surged 58% while all businesses increased only 12%.” Yet in higher education, only 30% of college presidents are women, and that hasn’t changed much in the last eight years. There is still “a 26.5% difference between female representation in the classroom and representation at the top” (Samsel, 2017).

But while men are often seen as expressing more confidence, perhaps it is no surprise that many women demonstrate achievement drive. Achievement is about tying personal goals to organizational goals. Achievement isn’t about competing with the other person and outperforming him/her; it’s about improving one’s own performance and self-development. Leaders with achievement drive tend to exercise the collaborative qualities of involving others in goal-setting, planning, and exploring alternatives before acting (Mitchell, 2016). In our culture, those are qualities women tend to exercise more than men. Whereas many male leaders are motivated by a desire to achieve power, women are more frequently motivated by the desire to gain visibility and the satisfaction of beating their personal bests (Mitchell, 92-93).

Tempering Assertiveness

Organizationally, the way colleagues and leaders perceive achievement differs for men and women. A man who is ambitious is admirable; a woman, grasping. Most organizational cultures do not reward “aggressive” or assertive women, with one exception.

“Tempering assertiveness” or “making others comfortable” (Mitchell, 2015), a key tactic for effective leaders, is often more developed in women leaders. This is as we might expect. “Getting ahead” requires that women demonstrate the traditionally male trait of assertiveness, as long as they deploy it differently from men. Men in an androcentric system rarely have to think about how to express either their confidence or assertiveness in ways that make others feel comfortable. Women do. While some men in leadership see tempering assertiveness as a competency that is important to their effectiveness, women in leadership understand it as important to their survival; it is how they avoid being read as intimidating and being labeled as a “bitch.” Tempering assertiveness requires enough self-awareness and self-monitoring to “break down tension and put others at ease without diminishing their status of authority” (Mitchell). Assertiveness can be tempered by humor, humility, empathy, rapport, and finding common ground. This reality raises the question: For women, where does tempering assertiveness stop and becoming complicit with the androcentric system start?

Women adapt by behaving more diplomatically, whereas men are more likely to behave authoritatively. Mitchell (2015) found that women will recast their language from my achievement to our achievement–as one small yet effective tactic to engage others in the pursuit of ambitious goals. By contrast, it is culturally expected that men will claim achievement for themselves, and stories abound of men who unabashedly take credit for the work of their teams–yet blame them in the event of a failure. By acknowledging the team’s role in the achievement, men in positions of authority could strengthen their leadership and their team’s willingness to partner with them in taking risks. This isn’t a leadership tactic we teach often in our culture, yet it is one example of how much could be gained if we had more open conversation about leadership strengths and styles that have been traditionally associated with women.

In short, women leaders who have developed enough self-awareness and political savvy learn when to appear engaging and encouraging and when to appear confident and driven. Successful women are managing gender expectations by ‘femininizing’ competencies such as achievement drive, confidence, strategic control, and influence, and by tempering assertiveness. They are balancing being a woman and being a leader (Mitchell, 2015). The benefits are tangible. Rigoglioso (2011) cited research from Stanford which found that “women who are aggressive, assertive, and confident but who can turn these traits on and off, depending on the social circumstances, get more promotions than either men or other women.” In fact, they “received 1.5 times as many promotions as masculine men and about two times as many promotions as feminine men.” The last point is telling in that men who are predominately supportive and nurturing are penalized. Keep in mind in our gendered workplaces, both men and women will reward self-aware assertive women and undervalue “feminine” men. Changing these attitudes means changing the culture to one that appreciates and rewards diverse approaches to leadership.

Shifting the Culture: What Steps Can We Take to Improve?

Even confident women are more susceptible to criticism and rejection than men, and this is a difference organizations rarely recognize. A 2017 study of 10,000 women in British companies found that female executives are 1.5 times less likely than men to apply for top management jobs if they have been rejected before from a similar job. Rejection is inherent in trying to advance in corporations, so these effects add up. The 6% of women who made it to CEO in Fortune 1000 companies did that by being particularly resilient (Korn Ferry Institute, 2017). Given this reality, we have to ask: For women, where does tempering assertiveness stop and becoming complicit with the androcentric system start?

What can men and women do together within our post-secondary institutions to build resiliency and confidence, counter androcentrism, recognize women’s achievement drive, value supportive and nurturing men and women, and address some of the systemic obstacles in these leaders?

Just as some leadership competencies, such as collaboration and empathy, may be self-development edges for men, confidence and assertiveness tend to be an edge for women. To build your confidence as a leader:

  • Start small.
    • Pick a small challenge and address it. This could be pulling that guy aside who interrupted you at the meeting, or the one who restated your idea and didn’t credit you, or asking someone who already supports you to be your mentor or sponsor. Plan what you want to say and how to say it. Think through what you want the outcome of the conversation to be (for example, communicating your point while keeping the relationship intact).
    • If you to need to brush up on difficult conversations, there are resources for that, too. You can read the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. Or check out my article “Developing Leadership: Using Triggers as a Wake-Up Call.”
    • Pick a “research” partner, someone with whom you can debrief your experiment. Together, evaluate what you learned and what you could apply next time.
    • Celebrate the effort (not just the outcome).
  • Identify your edge–for example, assertiveness, self-awareness, resiliency, or confidence–and find a coach, mentor, or partner to build that muscle.


  • Shifra Bronznick and Anne Weisberg suggest that in meetings men might raise their hands too, in the interest of gender equity. Their organization, Advancing Women Professionals in the Jewish Community (AWP), launched the Men as Allies campaign, which asked men to take a pledge not to participate in all-male panels nor organize conferences where only men are featured in major roles. This required that sometimes a man step aside intentionally so that a woman could move up (Bronznick, Weisberg, 2014).
  • Make sure that women are represented well on committees and task forces — and make the case that this is not just in the name of equity but also performance. Adding women to your work group will increase the group’s capacity for creativity and problem solving (Lipman, 2018).
  • In their book, What Works for Women at Work, Willams and Dempsey (2014) suggest forming a posse, “a group of men and women who trumpet each other’s achievements and publicize each other’s work.” This intentional bragging on behalf of a teammate has the effect of naming accomplishments, highlighting competence, and boosting confidence.


Changing the institution’s culture requires an intentional goal accompanied by a clear roadmap of how to get from where the institution now is to its desired end state. Culture change starts with changing behaviors.  In That’s What She Said, Joann Lipman (2018) offers these ideas:

  • Establish formal mentoring programs. These “give both mentors and mentees a common set of goals to accomplish, and makes those goals clear to the rest of the organization”. The benefit? “Catalyst found that women who find mentors through formal programs receive about 50 percent more promotions than those who find mentors on their own.”
  • Improve hiring and promotion processes. Require women candidates be recommended for job openings and communicate this goal across the institution. In addition, “create an internal task force that requires every department to monitor its progress in hiring and retaining women.” Deloitte did this and quadrupled their percentage of female partners.
  • Publish wages and wage audit gaps. Lipman reports that after the province of Quebec introduced fair-pay legislation, “McGill University found that 2,100 current and former employees had been underpaid; the university spent at least $19 million to close the gap.”

Investigate Further

The next article in this series will be focused on conceptual thinking and vision in leadership.

You may also be interested in Academic Impressions’ upcoming conference Women’s Leadership Success in Higher Education.


Bronznick, S., Weisberg, A. “Women In The Spotlight: If Google And SXSW Can Do It, So Can You.” Forbes. June 3, 2014.

Brzezinki, M. Knowing Your Value: Women, Money, and Getting What You’re Worth. Highbridge Company, New York. 2011.

Cruickshank, N. “5 surefire tactics to boost your confidence at work – every day.”  The Telegraph. 2017.

Evans., L. (2015). “Why Women’s Path To Success Often Looks Different.” Fast Company. February 27, 2015.

Korn Ferry Institute. Women CEOs Speak: Strategies for the next generation of female executives and how companies can pave the road. 2017.

Lipman, J. That’s What She Said: What men Need to Know (And Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together. Harper Collins Publisher, New York. 2018.

Rigoglioso, M. “Researchers: How Women Can Succeed in the Workplace.” Insights by Stanford Business. Stanford University. March 1, 2011.

Sarsons, H. and Xu, G. “Confidence Men? Gender and Confidence: Evidence among Top Economists.” Working Paper. July 14, 2015.

Scott, S. Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time. Penguin Random House, New York. 2004.

Mitchell, C. V. Breaking through “Bitch”: How Women can Shatter Stereotypes and Lead Fearlessly. Career Press, Wayne, NJ. 2015.

Williams, J.C., and Dempsey, R. What Works for Women at Work. New York University Press, New York. 2014.

Photo above by Tommy Lisbin on Unsplash.