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).

How Gender Bias Limits Our Ability to Develop Collaborative Leadership

The literature also raises the question, If women’s approaches to leadership are more effective, then why are there so few women leaders?

One root cause of this seemingly intractable problem is androcentrism, which is consciously or unconsciously placing a masculine point of view at the center of culture and history, thereby viewing women or any “other” as a deviation from the norm. Men and women both assume that male colleagues and male leaders are competent, whereas women have to prove their competence and then prove it again (Williams & Dempsey, 2014). Men are hired and promoted because of their assumed competence and for their potential; women are hired after they have proven their competence and have already demonstrated their potential. Men are instinctively respected, whereas women are not.

In a group or team setting, this implicit gender bias gets in the way of collaboration because of the way it drives whose voices are respected and accorded time. Regular occurrences on teams include:

  • The usurpation of women’s ideas by male members of the team.
  • “Man-terrupting,” the phenomenon of men interrupting women.
  • The frequency with which women interrupt other women — more often than they interrupt men.

The disrespect and diminishment of women by women illustrates how deeply androcentrism is embedded, often even in the collegial environment of an academic department. Teams, committees, and task forces need to establish new norms around how “talk time” is allocated, taking a cue from the high-performing teams studied at Google. And leaders — both men and women — who want to leverage the full potential and brainstorming power of their units need to be intentional both in inviting collaboration and in addressing the behaviors that limit it. This is particularly important now because, as Mrig and Sanaghan have argued in the paper The Skills Future Higher-Ed Leaders Need to Succeed, the challenges facing our departments and institutions are more complex than those in the past, and it will take more than a single leader or a limited perspective to find appropriate and practical solutions.

If you serve on a student success task force, the issue of student persistence or student resilience is too nuanced and complex to be solved by one administrator or faculty member, or even by a team of “the usual suspects.” It is going to take an array of diverse perspectives on the problem. Transformational leaders ensure that those perspectives are voiced and tapped.

What Steps Can We Take to Improve?

Here are specific things at the individual, team, and institutional level that men and women can do to foster collaboration and disarm the biases that prevent us from working together more effectively.


In her excellent article based on the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), Adrianna Kezar (2005) notes that collaborative, shared leadership leads to richer learning environments and opportunities. One way to create shared leadership across campus is to engage new and current staff in cultivating a shared vision and mission. For example, if student success is part of school’s mission, an institution can use public forums and cross-departmental conversations to establish a shared understanding of what “student success” means at this institution, for its unique student body.

Kezar suggestions also include:

  • Use celebrations to build community amongst different colleges, departments, offices such as celebrating the accomplishments of an integrated work group.
  • Identify collaborative tasks and initiatives, such as campus wide conversations about what matters to student success.
  • Advocate for shared governance of faculty, students, and staff and inclusive decision making processes.
  • Alter structures to cross-functional team work such as team teaching, interdisciplinary research, curriculum development, job sharing, and represent cross-unit work in annual review documents as a factor to determine merit pay.
  • Tighten the philosophical and operational linkages between academic and student affairs, such as the University of Michigan’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) residential program.


Consider these three steps:

  • Acknowledging that both men and women talk over their female colleagues, one solution is to institute a “no interruptions” rule for everyone — with one exception: if a woman is cut off, interrupt the interrupter to allow her to finish her thought (Lipman, 2018).
  • For men, adopting a collaborative mindset may mean intentionally yielding the floor to women, taking the back seat at meetings, asking more questions — listening more and talking less. These behaviors will set the tone and approach that allows everyone to focus on the team’s objectives and the problem at hand.
  • Robin Camarote (2016) suggests that teams read the Google study “Project Aristotle” and reflect on their own team norms. What is the distribution of talk time? Is gender a factor in this? How able are team members at “reading” each other? How comfortably do they disagree?


Weisbord and Janoff (2015) have written a highly accessible handbook on collaborative leadership, Lead More, Control Less. Here are their 8 advanced leadership skills that overturn convention and enable leaders to operate in more collaborative ways:

  1. Control structures, not people. Make sure meeting goals, the decision making process and outcomes are clear, the right people are in the room, and there will be enough time. One caveat I will add – even the best structures will not undo the forces of androcentrism. Individuals must do their own work to understand their biases.
  2. Let everyone be responsible. Accept everyone is doing the best they can, let go of hidden agendas, encourage team self-management.
  3. Consider anxiety to be blocked excitement. Increase your tolerance for disorder, ambiguity, and uncertainty.  You can’t control others’ anxiety, but you can channel it.
  4. Avoid “taking it personally.” Detach enough from your projections so that you stop taking personally what others say or do. Choose your own judgements, fears, and fantasies, and, reduce any tendency to blame others for what you do or feel.
  5. Disrupt “fight or flight.” Treat differences as a creative opportunity to keep people focused, explore the practice of creating behaviorally functional sub-groups.
  6. Include the right people. Hold meetings with all key parties who have the resources, expertise, information, authority to act, and need (including those who will be impacted) regardless of where they are located in the institution.
  7. Experience the “whole elephant,” acting decisively with full knowledge. Get a picture of the whole that no one person had before and that no expert an provide.  Hold off problem solving or decision making until all aspects have been explored.
  8. Surface unspoken agreement, find common ground where you least expect it. Treat disagreements as inevitable and legitimate and lead by accepting disagreements as natural. Separate resolvable conflict from value differences and lead people from words to action.

Any one of these behaviors or stances may sound simple. Taken together, these approaches not only foster spaces in which the impact of implicit gender bias is lessened, but also lead to a powerful shift in how leaders lead conversations across their teams, departments, and campuses — and in how we solve difficult challenges facing our communities and our students.

Investigate Further

The next article in this series will offer a close examination of ambition (“drive”) and political savvy — and how the exercise of these leadership traits is impacted by androcentrism and implicit bias.

You may also be interested in Academic Impressions’ conference Women’s Leadership Success in Higher Education. You can check out the full array of our leadership development workshops and conferences here. These trainings are uniquely designed for leaders in higher education.


Eagly, A., and Carli, L.L. (2007). “Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership.” Harvard Business Review. September 2007.

Camarote, R. (2016). “What Google’s New Emotional Intelligence Study Says About Teamwork and Success.”

Gaskell, A. (2017). “New Study Finds that Collaboration Drives Workplace Performance.” Forbes.

Kezar, A. (2005). Promoting Student Success: The Importance of Shared Leadership and Collaboration (Occasional Paper No. 4). Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research.

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

Mitchell, C.V. (2015). Breaking Through “Bitch”: How Women Can Shatter Stereotypes and Lead Fearlessly. Career Press.

Solnit, R. (2014). “Cassandra Among the Creeps.”

Swinson, J. (2018). Equal Power: And How You Can Make It Happen. London: Atlantic Books.

Weisbord, M., and Janoff, S. (2015). Lead More, Control Less: 8 Advanced Leadership Skills that Overturn Convention. Oakland, CA: Barreett-Koehler.

Willams, J.C., and Dempsey, R. (2014). What Works for Women at Work: four Patterns Working Women Need to Know. New York and London: New York University Press.

Photo above by Rawpixel on Unsplash.