How Gender Bias in Higher Education Leadership Gets in the Way of the Collaboration We Need

Beating Gender Bias in Higher Education with Collaborative Leadership: A photo of two colleagues working together

Gender bias in higher education can lead us to prize men's voices over women's and to value authoritarian and transactional leadership over transformational, collaborative leadership.

Yet collaboration is key to meeting the complex challenges our departments and institutions of higher education now face. So let's explore: How best can men and women work together to develop this critical leadership trait that has traditionally been considered "feminine"?

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

Previous articles in this series:

  1. Challenging Androcentrism and Implicit Bias in the Academy
  2. Challenging Androcentrism in the Academy: Why We Need to Value Empathy More
  3. Gender Bias in Higher Education: Why We Need to Develop Self-Aware Leaders

In this series we are looking at leadership traits, how they are deployed and recognized differently for men and women, and how gender bias impedes women’s advancement within our colleges and universities. In this fourth article, we'll take a close look at collaboration. We'll examine:

  1. Why this leadership competency is linked to transformational leadership and team effectiveness.
  2. How androcentrism and implicit bias limit our ability to recognize and leverage this leadership competency in higher education.
  3. How we can take steps to improve this situation - at the organizational level, at the team level, and as individuals.

Why Collaboration is So Critical

Remember that memo distributed by a now ex-employee of Google, criticizing diversity and defending the skewed percentage of male coders? After debunking the former employee's false claim that men were inherently better coders for "biological" reasons, senior leaders at Google also argued that the coder "had fundamentally misunderstood what skills were needed...such as collaboration, creativity and teamwork" (Swinson, 2018, p. 332).

While there are many differences between the Google campus and a college campus, there is a lesson here for leaders in higher education -- and it isn't just the lesson of needing to debunk and respond to overt gender biases. The lesson is that too many of us prize individual achievement over collaborative work. This prioritization of the (often male) genius's achievement as the model for high performance and leadership feeds our implicit gender bias and prevents us from developing those same skills that Google's senior leaders recognized our leaders need: collaboration, creativity, and teamwork.

Collaborative and inclusive leaders support and encourage their colleagues and followers to develop their potential and contribute more effectively. Leaders who actively foster inclusion and collaboration increase group performance and success because they prioritize task over individual, increase engagement across their team or department, and, as a result, see lower fatigue levels among their staff (Gaskell, 2017). Google's "Project Aristotle" study explored the power of collaboration and found surprisingly -- that in a high-performing team, and without any one person having to monitor or control the dialogue, everyone talks roughly the same amount of time during a team meeting or interaction. The group norm had created a distribution of "talk time" that happened naturally.

Eagly and Carli (2007) note that male leaders are often more likely to excel at "transactional" leadership, which depends on a structured environment with self-motivated workers who respond to incentives, rewards, and punishments.But Eagly and Carli also note that women are more likely to engage in “transformational” leadership, which includes collaboration and inclusiveness. Women are also more likely to engage in "rewarding" behaviors such as support and encouragement, than punishment behaviors. Rebecca Solnit has pointed out that women in the workforce have been using consensus and other anti-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian decision making techniques since the 1980’s. In a work setting, for example, women are inclined to let a conversation run its course once the purpose has been defined clearly. “Most leadership research has found the transformational style...to be more suited to leading the modern organization. The research tells us not only that men and women do have somewhat different leadership styles, but also that women’s approaches are the more generally effective—while men’s often are only somewhat effective or actually hinder effectiveness” (2007).

As studies increasingly show the necessity of collaborative leadership in a modern organization, the opportunity now, according to C.V. Mitchell in Breaking Through "Bitch," is for men and women to learn something from each other about their leadership styles. Men can learn to share power, and women can learn to “maintain the power and responsibility of their leadership position while being seen as a partner” (Mitchell, 2015).


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