What Every Higher Ed Leader Needs to Know About Supporting Women in Leadership

How can higher ed leaders support women's leadership within their institutions? What do leaders need to know? Academic Impressions staff and leaders in the academy offer their advice and perspective.

Several times a year at our Women’s Leadership Success in Higher Education conference, we bring together 200 women in leadership positions (or aspiring to leadership positions) in higher education to network, connect with mentors and success coaches, and share perspectives on the challenges of the academy.

As we approach our next iteration of the event, we wanted to ask our faculty panel (as well as our internal team who designed the conference) what advice they most want to give this year to leaders in higher education who are committed to doing more to support women’s leadership growth and success.

Here’s what they would like to share with you:

1. What’s one piece of advice you would offer those working in higher ed to support women in leadership roles?

Karen Whitney, President Emerita, Clarion University. "If you really want to see more women in leadership, and in particular at the highest levels of leadership, then be prepared to be both honest and clear.

"First, if a leader has asked for your support either as their supervisor, peer, or mentor, then be honest with them—both when they achieve well and when they do not. If there is a genuine interest in working with a leader to be successful, then supportive relationships must be authentic. And authenticity has to occur before honesty is given. There has to be a discussion in advance:

  • What are the ground rules to an honest conversation?
  • How and when does the leader want to receive critical feedback?

"Second, be clear. It’s not enough to simply say “good job”; you need to say what about the job was “good.” Giving clear, actionable comments will be most helpful to guide the leader as to what they should keep doing. When the job was a ‘failure’ or ‘not so good’ then clear, specific actionable comments become even more important, so the leader can avoid repeating the misstep.  An honest and clear approach to dialogue will provide a basis for real discussions of the support that can advance the leader.”

Beth Weinstock, Leadership Coach. "I am always amazed at how surprised women are, in higher ed and otherwise, to learn that others are carrying negative self-talk, too. Too many women have an inner voice that says things like, ‘I’m not smart enough,’ or ‘I am an imposter and they will find me out,’ and think they are the only one. When women are in a safe place to share their inner critic, their surprise at how others carry the same messaging is very liberating. Women learn that ‘it’s not just me’ and begin to open up and share more. In higher ed, there are so many silos, so that women do not find the places to share. I find all the time that women leaders want to talk, share, and support each other, but they do not have the venue, or the time and space, or the support to do it. One of the great things about the women’s conference is that they have time both in session, and then at all the free times, to keep up their conversation with one another. There is an energy and enthusiasm when the support is there.”

Jeanne Hey, Dean of College of Arts & Sciences, University of New England. "My piece of advice for (especially younger) women in higher ed, and therefore what I would pass on to leaders who want to support women, is a version of ‘Just do it.’ I see women in professorial positions and those aspiring to leadership struggling, experiencing angst, analyzing and reanalyzing, sometimes spending years…all in trying to make the ‘right’ decision about their future. They especially tend to focus on family issues and the trade-offs that a leadership position will necessarily bring to home life. Certainly it’s appropriate and intelligent to think about these issues carefully. But I see more anxiety among this batch than seems useful or necessary. All the analysis and anxiety can lead one to think that the trade-offs are more dire than they really are. A leadership position in higher ed is in many ways a job like any other and there are thousands of ways to make it work for one and one’s family. If these future leaders spent more of this time preparing for the trade-offs and changes rather than worrying about them, most would find it doable. And they might not delay the pursuit of a leadership position as long as they often do.”


From the Academic Impressions Team:

Timea Halmai, Academic Impressions. "For HR folks and people making hiring decisions: Actively interrogate your assumptions, attitudes, and choices when it comes to selecting colleagues for leadership positions. By practicing self-reflection learn to recognize and accept your unconscious biases and work hard towards eliminating them. Ask yourself regularly: would I be behaving the same way with a man?  Protect, amplify and listen to women’s voices. Create a safe space where women are encouraged to speak up. If a woman is interrupted in a meeting, make sure to call it out and help make her voice heard. Proactively put in place processes and support systems to facilitate a flexible working environment for those with childcare responsibilities / families (e.g. flexible or part time hours, subsidized day care etc.)"

2. What has been your biggest “ah-ha” moment, the most surprising thing you have learned about supporting women’s leadership in higher ed?

Therese Lask, Training & Organizational Development Specialist, Colorado State University. "I believe my ah-ha moment revolves around the question of ‘What does success look like to you?’ When I think back to the early stages of my career, it was all about moving up. But now, at 58, it’s about being the best me. And I still do quite a bit of reflecting on: Am I being my best self in my role? Is this what success looks like to me?”

Karen Whitney, President Emerita, Clarion University. "My biggest surprise in working with women across higher education as they work on advancing themselves as leaders, is how often women tell me that other women in their workplace are part of the problem. Women note that they work with women who are not supportive of advancing as leaders. Women will sabotage other women’s work. Women will be more critical of fellow women colleagues versus male colleagues. Women comment that they are oblivious to institutional gender bias and accept if not actually enable the biased status quo."

From the Academic Impressions Team:

Sarah Seigle Peatman, Academic Impressions. "One of my biggest learnings is that impostor syndrome—the phenomenon wherein you don’t feel worthy of your role or that you’re a ‘fraud’ and that people will ‘find you out’—is very real! I think impostor syndrome affects men and women (in other words, it’s a human thing and not just a ‘women’s thing’), but I do think women suffer disproportionately from it and have to work harder to get rid of these kinds of feelings. It’s amazing how widespread impostor syndrome is, yet it’s very seldom openly acknowledged or talked about. I’ve benefitted from dialoguing openly and honestly about this with other women in leadership roles in my own workplace, and I think making space for those kinds of conversations to occur—or at least not being afraid to have them—is important for supporting women’s leadership at any organization.”

Elizabeth Ross Hubbell, Academic Impressions. "My biggest ‘ah-ha’ moments at our Women's Leadership conference is that those insecurities, those little voices of doubt, the cruel criticizing voices, run through every single one of us, from the most successful CEOs and First Ladies to our youngest girls. Helping each other to silence those through positive messages is one of the easiest and most powerful things we can do for each other."

Amit Mrig, President, Academic Impressions. "This is such a critical question; we need to do all we can support greater diversity in our leadership. Higher education is facing complex challenges right now. How do we improve the quality of our student experience while lowering the total cost of education? How do we improve the trust of the public in an era of declining funding? How do we ensure the liberal arts remains relevant, financially sustainable and accessible to all Americans? How do we infuse new ways of thinking in tradition-bound institutions? We are not dealing with just one of these challenges but with all of them, and at the same time.

"We didn’t arrive at these challenges overnight; we’ve been faced with them for decades. Many of the challenges we face today can be traced to past leadership failures. The leadership that got us here won’t get us to where we need to go. We need a different kind of leader and that means more women, more people of color, and more diversity in all its forms.

"I have been especially struck by the notion that many of the traits typically associated with female leaders, are exactly the traits we need in our leaders today. And nowhere is that more apparent than when you attend our Women’s leadership program.

"This conversation about how we can support women in higher-ed leadership needs to be happening on every campus in the country."

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