We Need to Value How Women Use Vision and Conceptual Thinking to Lead

Challenging Andocentrism - Recognizing Women's Vision - Photo of Forest Seen Through Glasses

It’s no secret that more women in the workforce has not equaled more women in leadership. Women opt out because they don’t feel their work is meaningful, they object to the direction their institution or institutional culture is headed, or they believe their contributions aren't valued. Countering this requires a systemic approach.

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

In this sixth article in our series in Challenging Androcentrism in the Academy, we'll look at one set of leadership traits and behaviors we identified earlier in the series: vision and conceptual thinking. We'll examine:

  1. How women leaders typically 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 organizational and team levels, and as individuals.

In preparation for this article, I was fortunate to have interview conversations with many women in higher education. In our conversations about conceptual thinking, I discovered a distinction between "big ideas" and "vision." Big ideas tend to excite. Vision can also excite, but for the women I spoke with, vision also includes more mundane aspects of operationalization which then receive less than enthusiastic responses from their male bosses. I would like to add that there were women I spoke with who did not perceive themselves or others being marginalized for their conceptual thinking. Nonetheless, if an institution is interested in higher levels of creativity and improved outcomes, it’s important to give voice to the different ways people see.

How Women Leaders Use Conceptual Thinking

In "Leadership Code Meets Gender Science," Kate Sweetman recounts the story of an experiential college business class that was set up as a competitive marketplace of buyers and sellers. The goal was for the assigned sellers to price their bids in each round to maximize profit. The winner would be the person who made the most money at the end of the class. Kate won, but when the professor called on “Mr. Sweetman” to explain "his" algorithm, Kate explained she didn’t have one. “I made an educated guess about where to start based on the case facts, and then re-calibrated my offer with each round based on what I sensed the market reaction was. I soon saw a pretty clear relationship between the asking price and the market share I could garner…” Rather than value, or even learn from this different way of seeing, the professor turned his back on her and gave the prize to the young man who came in second – and who could, presumably, explain his algorithm (Sweetman, 2008).

Sweetman’s ability to employ a “wide ranging observational style” (Helgesen & Johnson, 2010) was clearly not valued by her professor, and for years she doubted her ability to “see.”

Sweetman was leveraging her conceptual thinking, her “the ability to find connections or patterns between abstract ideas and then piece them together to form a complete picture” (Green, 2012). Statistically speaking, women in our culture are more inclined to scan (be more conceptual), while men are more inclined to focus (be more analytical). Conceptual thinking allows a person to look at the big picture and see something others may miss, by evaluating how people, teams, departments work together to fulfill goals and outcomes.

Women, for example, might notice a potential conflict among colleagues that could derail a project. In the same scenario, men who may be more focused on task or bottom line outcomes may not see relational trouble brewing. Given the complexity of the challenges facing teams both at institutions of higher education and organizations in other sectors, Helgesen, et al., cite Daniel Pink as predicting that “an ability to read and interpret 'the subtleties of human interaction' will emerge as the key leadership competency in the years ahead.”

Vision: Viewing Work in a Larger Social Context

“A vision is not just a picture of what could be; it is an appeal to our better selves, a call to become something more.” - Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Conceptual thinking is one way of seeing, vision is another. Women want their work to matter, and they want their organizations to achieve something that matters (Helgesen and Johnson, 2010). An earlier article in this series noted the surge in women owned businesses from 2007-2018, this may be because they don’t feel their work is meaningful, they object to where their institution or institutional culture is headed, or they believe their contributions aren’t valued. For example, most women do not consider achieving targets for their own sake as either inspiring or motivating. Meeting requirements for the sake of a meaningful outcome, such as preparing students to make a positive impact, is more compelling.

A woman in leadership will connect herself to an institution’s core values to inform her vision, but vision alone is not enough. She knows that vision must communicate and resonate with others if they are to embrace something bigger than themselves and work toward moving an institution forward. Mrig and Sanaghan note that “to reimagine our institutions, we will need leaders who … can engage the campus community in honest and invigorating conversations about the future” (2017).

However, inspiring a shared vision is still not enough. Vision has to be followed by implementation, and this is often accomplished with collaborative behaviors. Collaborations can be up, down, and across organizational levels as well as outside the organization itself to include community partners. Implementation also brings in another strength women leaders cultivate, strategic control. This is the art of empowering others and maintaining control at the same time (Mitchell, 2015).

How Androcentrism Marginalizes Women Who Are Conceptual Thinkers

One woman I spoke with—let’s call her Jane—was chosen to lead a major curriculum change in a medical school. She had a big conceptual vision and knew she needed an infrastructure design. She charged a separate committee to bring a design to her and a male colleague—let’s call him John—took his idea directly to the dean instead of through her (see my commentary on “end runs” here). John’s idea excited the dean, who admitted to Jane that he didn’t get excited when she talked to him. Jane was holding the big picture vision; however, her communications with the dean were focused on analytical concepts, implementation, and structural change.

Eventually, Jane called a retreat of the team leaders and asked each to describe their design ideas to the dean. When John spoke, it was evident he didn’t know how to operationalize his ideas, and the dean realized he didn’t know what John’s ideas really meant. Jane had created a big vision and used conceptual and analytical thinking. When she saw a communication breakdown, she employed her collaboration skills to move the project forward.

There is a difference between having a vision and understanding how to move it forward, and simply expressing a big idea. Jane was focused on the vision, her ideas were conceptual, and she was also focused on changing structures.

Both men and women can bring conceptual and analytical ways of thinking to bear, and both are needed in our institutions. Yet, as reflected through the invisible lens of androcentrism, those ways of thinking are perceived and valued differently. A man with a compelling big picture can get away with being breezier about the facts informing that picture than a woman can. This is due in part to how men are perceived (see the example of Dr. Barres). In the example above, the dean assumed John would know how to operationalize his design based on his unconscious bias - if John brought the design, he must know how to make it work. When women come to the table with just a vision, they are grilled on the nuts and bolts, but if they come with just nuts and bolts they are criticized for not being strategic. To feel and be viewed as more credible, women ground their vision in both qualitative and quantitative data.

Nadia Bello, Manager, Experiential Learning Strategy, Ryerson University, noted that corporate partnerships, combined with the growing pressure for institutions to demonstrate relevance, has driven the adoption of terms and practices like outcomes, metrics, and benchmarks. We hypothesized the growth of partnerships between academia and corporations has further subordinated and marginalized conceptual thinking, impacting both men and women.

In my interviews, there were also examples of women leaders who had blocked, marginalized, and micromanaged other women. This gave rise to speculation as to whether this was a reflection of personal style, or if those leaders felt they had to be authoritarian or risk being marginalized themselves.

Daniel Pink predicted the importance of reading and interpreting “the subtleties of human interaction” for leaders, yet in our androcentric organizations those abilities are undervalued and unrewarded. “Organizations do give lip service to fostering a culture that values more typically feminine qualities, but despite these good intentions, a relative minority manage to achieve good results” (Gaskell, 2017). You don’t have to do much more that scratch the surface to understand why.

What Steps Can We Take to Improve?

WHAT INSTITUTIONS CAN DO

In considering what institutions, teams or departments, and individuals can do, I would like to bring in the term gender balance. It resonates as less threatening than gender equity. As one interviewee noted, “people like the idea of fairness until they have to give something up, if we aim for balance it doesn’t implicate anybody, nor do they have to examine their own bias.” Another interviewee suggested “gender balance” may encourage a willingness to think outside the box. They did not suggest using one term over the other, each term can be used strategically.

What would change if our academic institutions held and operationalized a vision of gender balance in service of equity?

  • Reconsider hiring criteria. Regardless of how much vision a woman has, if academic institutions hire and promote leaders based on experience, the pool is skewed to white men. According to the American College President Study, "the percentage of presidents who were women increased only 4 percent between 2011 and 2016, growing from 26 to 30 percent over that time period. Developing deeper insight into the unique experiences of women presidents is of paramount importance if the presidential gender gap is to be closed." The report recommends that “institutions, boards, search committees, and search firms can work to remove visible and invisible barriers that women face in their progression to the presidency.”
    • A Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) recounted this story. The institution was re-structuring and the Provost already knew he wanted to hire two white men for new dean positions. The CDO advocated a candidate search which created the opportunity for two women at the college to apply. In the end, the men got the positions and both women were promoted. It’s likely the women would not have been promoted if they hadn’t applied, however, there are still no women deans at that institution.
  • Define the "why." Rather than focus on the numbers, such as how many women are hired or how many dollars are spent on gender equity programs, focus on why. Organizations need to answer the big why questions for themselves and for the women they interview – why, specifically, is it important to bring women into leadership positions at the institution?
  • Actively support and empower leaders who bring conceptual thinking to the table. Value unconventional paths to leadership. One interviewee pointed out exceptional female candidates who were big conceptual thinkers, integrators, collaborators, scholars and published. That kind of intelligence gave them credit, but not the credit they needed. They were not able to move up because they hadn’t followed the traditional trajectory and weren’t connected to the right people. Helgesen and Johnson (2010) offer these ideas:
    • Shift from overvaluing analytic thinking to valuing different ways of knowing, equally.
    • As one interviewee stated, academics are not set up to work across departments to achieve common outcomes. Support a "web of inclusion" of supportive relationships across organizational levels by introducing professional development plans that include ways of building networks.
    • Respect the power of empathy and include it as a leadership competency in leaders' performance reviews. In the words of Lieutenant General William Pagonis, “No one is a leader who cannot first put himself in another person’s shoes.”

WHAT TEAMS CAN DO

  • Ask "What's missing?" As an organizational development consultant, when I conduct data analysis with a group, asking "What's missing?" opens up the conversation to explore different ways of interpreting and making meaning of data.
  • Undertake a thinking preferences assessment as a team. A thinking styles or thinking preferences assessment such as Emergenetics or TTI Success Insights can give your team the opportunity to discover and discuss how team members prefer to approach decisions--conceptually, analytically, socially, or otherwise.
  • Reward individuals who provide collaborative support to help a member of the faculty or administration, or another department, complete a project or meet their goal.

WHAT INDIVIDUALS CAN DO

  • Hold the big picture. Keep the institution’s vision present and ensure your actions and decisions align with the institution’s vision.
  • Be, and be on the lookout for, “anticipatory thinkers” (Mrig et al.). Scan the external and internal environments for signs of change, challenges, and innovation. Discuss the implications with campus stakeholders across the institution.
  • Be open to and curious about others who think differently. This would seem to a matter of course on a college campus, but we all have limited ways of seeing. For example, if one person is focused on the bottom line and another on relational dynamics, explore the impact of both.
  • Notice gender balance/imbalance. Is there gender balance in your team, department, meeting? The degree to which individuals feel comfortable bringing this up is a reflection of the institution’s culture.
  • Network. As one interviewee put it, are you drinking with the right people? Although not specific to recognizing conceptual thinking, networking can open doors to awards and promotions.

Investigate Further

The final article in this series will provide 7 strategies for institutional leaders wishing to challenge androcentrism within their institutions.

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

Acknowledgments

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
  • L. Stacey Heath, MSOD, ACC, Master of Science Organization Development Program Advisor and Coach, American University
  • Diane Magrane, M.D., Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Emerita Director, ELAM and Founding Director ELATE at Drexel at Drexel University
  • 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.

References

Browning, G. "The Power of Conceptual Thinking to Strengthen Your Leadership." Inc, 2014.

Gagliardi, J.S. et al. American College President Study 2017. American Council for Education, 2017.

Gaskill, A. "New Study Finds That Collaboration Drives Workplace Performance." Forbes. June 22, 2017.

Giroux, M. "Here Are Three Types of Administrators Who Drive Achievement—and Two Who Don't." Ed Surge. March 5, 2018.

Green, H. "How to Develop 5 Critical Thinking Types." Forbes. March 27, 2012.

Helgesen, S. and Johnson, J. The Female Vision: Women’s Real Power at Work. Berrett-Koehler, Oakland, CA. 2012.

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

Mrig, A. and Sanaghan, P. The Skills Future Higher-Ed Leaders Need to Succeed. Academic Impressions. 2018.

Sweetman, K. "Leadership Code Meets Gender Science." Fast Company, 2008.

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

Photo above by Bud Helisson on Unsplash.