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.

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