Gender Bias in Higher Education: Why We Need to Develop Self-Aware Leaders

Gender Bias in the Academy: Abstract Image of Reflections

Implicit gender bias is systemic even in the egalitarian environment of higher education, and developing self-awareness in our leaders is the key to challenging it. Yet the “don’t rock the boat” culture of higher ed often gets in our way. Let’s look at how to counter that. This is the third in a series of articles on challenging androcentrism in the academy.

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

Previous articles in this series:
Challenging Androcentrism and Implicit Bias in the Academy
Challenging Androcentrism in the Academy: Why We Need to Value Empathy More

In this third article, we’ll look at one set of leadership traits we identified earlier in the series: self-awareness. We’ll examine:

  1. Why this leadership competency is linked to high performance.
  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.

Leadership: Where Self-Awareness is Critical

Self-awareness and self-development go hand in hand. Self-awareness includes knowing your values, motivators, behaviors, habits, strengths, edges, personality traits, filters, and triggers. For self-awareness to make a difference for you as leader and in your environment, you also have to understand the impact your words and actions have on the people around you and the results you seek. Self-development is doing the work to understand what makes you tick, and self-awareness informs what behaviors to change in order to improve your effectiveness in communicating and in your performance. And understanding your own strengths and edges will help inform your team building because you will include and appreciate the colleagues whose strengths are your edges.

Self-aware leaders have the ability to self-monitor. They share information and feelings appropriately, and this helps establish trust, workplace satisfaction, and organizational commitment (Avolio, Walumbwa, Weber, p. 424). These traits have been traditionally seen as “feminine.” Take the recent film Wonder Woman for an example. In the movie, Diana’s innocence is crushed outside the bubble of her childhood home, but her beliefs and her sense of self stays strong. She knows when and how to modify her behavior to relate to and engage her team, when to compromise, when to attack, and when to hold her ground.

However, self-awareness is a critical trait for any leader, and in higher education it’s especially important that we learn to prize this trait and support its development. Self-awareness and reflection at all levels of university leadership are key to dismantling the impact of androcentrism in the academy.

How Self-Awareness is Key to Battling Gender Bias

“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” — Gloria Steinem

Throughout this series, we raise the concept of androcentrism, the systemic gender bias for white men and against women (and others who aren’t white men). When we recognize our bias and take steps to value, encourage, and develop all voices, we find that teams, departments, and institutions get better results (Lipman, etc). Among her many examples in That’s What She Said, Joanne Lipman noted the payoff to Kimberly Clark when Tom Falk, the CEO and the male executive who headed the Kotex business, brought women into the marketing department. One of the first new tampon ads, dubbed “Apology,” mocked older, sexist tampon ads by featuring a woman narrating how much she likes to twirl in white spandex, run on the beach, and dance. The new ad was so successful that Kotex sales surged, Kimberly Clark stock price doubled, and everyone in the organization benefited. It wasn’t only that Tom Falk oversaw and championed a diversity initiative; it was that he and his team had the self-awareness to recognize past androcentrism–and the company had the courage to tell one on itself.

This degree of self-awareness and organizational honesty does not come easily, because the self-awareness needed to challenge an organization’s assumptions and behaviors requires individuals to be open and explicit about seeking feedback. And in the risk-averse, “don’t rock the boat” culture of higher education — especially within academic departments and divisions that have a legacy of distrust or protectiveness of turf — this imperative to receive and respond to honest, unflattering feedback can be especially difficult. But unless we have our blind spots revealed to us, we won’t be able to examine our implicit biases, achieve gender equity, and promote more productive work environments within our colleges and universities.

This need to seek feedback on our biases is not limited to white male academics. Women need to be prepared to tell on on themselves too. The ways in which women embody implicit bias with other women has been well researched. In their book The Confidence Code (2014) Kay and Shipman found that both men and women assume that male colleagues are competent, whereas female colleagues are not assumed to be so until they prove their competence. Lipman (2018) goes on to note that “women are just as likely to show less respect toward other women,” (p. 91) and that they interrupt other women much more than they interrupt men. Xiaowei Shi found that she and her university classmates spoke “more deferentially to male professors than female professors” (Lipman, 2018). And this respect gap is present in us from a young age; Amanda Marcotte reported that teachers from middle to high school graded girls more positively on math tests when the teachers were unaware that the students were girls (2015).

What Steps Can We Take to Improve?

Developing self-awareness is key to leadership development. When men and women become aware of their implicit gender bias, they can take steps to do better and empower their colleagues to do so, as well. When men champion women and women champion women, everybody wins — and the work environment at the institution becomes more productive, creative, and successful in pursuing the mission.


To raise awareness of implicit bias, first begin with the assumption that you are biased. Then, use all or any of the following tools to assess the extent to which this is the case and where your specific biases reside:

  • The Implicit Association Test
    The Harvard University Implicit Association Test (IAT) reports attitudes and beliefs about gender-career and gender-science (as well as many other topics). Once these implicit attitudes are surfaced, individuals and organizations can interrupt biased thinking, decrease harmful default behaviors, and begin to adopt more productive behaviors and policies by applying a gap analysis. Most projects include some kind of assessment of current state – where it, she, he, they are now – and the desired future state. The gap between the current and future state is an opportunity to develop the skills to achieve the desired outcome.
  • The Feedback Loop.
    Both the key and the barrier to developing self-awareness is the willingness and ability to solicit and welcome honest and especially unflattering feedback. If you ask for feedback, you have to be prepared for the answer. For leaders, it is important to model both giving and getting feedback.  Keep in mind women tend to take criticism to heart more than men. Here is an example of a feedback loop (Seashore, et al 1992): When you said x, I felt y, and the impact was z, or, When you did x, what happened was y, and the impact was z.  One of the most difficult practices to master is accept the feedback without getting defensive.
  • Get a Coach.
    Perhaps the way to practice the feedback loop is to work with a coach who is dedicated to your self-development goals. Coaches are not for weak leaders; on the contrary, coaches are for leaders who are looking for the next breakthrough. As Bill Gates said, “Everyone needs a coach, doesn’t matter whether you’re a football player, a tennis player, a gymnast, or a bridge player…we all need people who will give us feedback, that’s how we improve.” For more on how critical coaching is for mid-level academic leaders — and what forms this can take — see David Kiel’s paper 4 Strategies for Closing the Coaching Gap for Mid-Level Academic Leaders.


Here are four ways that a team, unit, or department within academia can raise self-awareness and address implicit gender bias:

  • “Nudge” Notes.
    One engineer at Google has successfully “rigged” his own system for encouraging women on his team to apply for promotions. He sends out “nudge” notes before a promotion cycle to all technical employees; these notes quickly recap the research on women’s lack of self-promotion and urges them to nominate themselves (Lipman, p. 82). Imagine if a department chair or program director sent out a similar notice during the nomination period for an internal grant or a new position.
  • The Posse
    One of the most damaging systemic consequences of androcentrism is the isolation of women from their colleagues. A posse is a way to correct the isolation: A group of men and women agree to note and publicize each other’s achievements. Organizing an informal posse to name women and their accomplishments will raise their profile and help them make it clear to each other that they have allies and supporters of their work (Williams and Dempsey, p. 106).
  • Put a Stop to “End Runs”
    One thing men specifically can do to help close the respect gap is to prevent “end runs” of men around their female supervisors to the next man up in the hierarchy. This is a move we see both inside and outside of higher education. Television producer Glen Mazzara has seen men in junior roles ignore a female department head, doing an end run around her by coming directly to him to privately complain that “she doesn’t know what she’s doing” (Lipman, p. 104). Mazzara’s response was to direct the junior man to report to the female department head, which reinforced her position and communicated his confidence in her. Chances are that in your academic department or your division within the institution, there may be similar behaviors — perhaps not that one exactly, but other political workarounds that allow gender biases and organizational dysfunction to persist. Identifying and putting a stop to them is crucial.
  • Watch your Language
    As part of Google’s ongoing implicit bias training, facilitators deliver a primer on “specific phrases that subtly discriminate against women,” meaning coded language that gets deployed against women. Phrases such as “aggressive, assertive, pushy, abrasive, self-promotional, political,” and “not a team player” reinforce gender bias (Lipman, p. 78). We can raise awareness of coded language and create a space to discuss the different assumptions we make and the different ways that we describe female and male leaders.


One step to take at the system level is to provide initial and ongoing training in implicit bias; the importance of this can’t be understated. If a corporation like Google sees this as a critical investment to make, surely our colleges and universities–which already have an egalitarian mission–can treat it so, as well. Training in implicit bias has to be central to your internal leadership development programming — and ideally to new employee training generally.

Next, take a long look at your institutional hiring practices. At every division across your organization, does your college or university:

  • Ensure that job announcements allow for flexibility in screening and selecting candidates
  • Examine language in job announcements for bias (see Watch your Language, above)
  • Examine evaluation tools for biases

Third, establish practices during training, evaluation, and promotion that encourage self-awareness about implicit bias. For example, you can create and distribute “bias cheat sheets” or checklists of common biases that managers implicitly use when evaluating employees or considering them for promotion.

Also, take specific steps to keep women in the leadership pipeline by making sure that performance benchmarks are gender-blind and that women leaders are not at an unfair disadvantage. Take a look at your gender-neutral, paid family leave, pay transparency, and pay equity (e.g., do your departments have financial incentives for reaching pay equity goals?).

Investigate Further

The next article in this series will be focused on empowering and valuing collaborative leadership.

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


Avolio, B. J., Walumbwa, F.O.,  Weber, T.J. (2009).  Leadership: Current Theories, Research, and Future Directions. Annual Review of Psychology. 60:421–49.

Frisina, M. (2014). “Self-Awareness: the Basic Competency of the Influential Leader.” Influential Leadership: Change Your Behavior, Change Your Organization, Change Health Care. Health Administration Press.

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R. & McKee, A.  (2002).  Primal leadership: Realizing the power of emotional intelligence.  Boston, Mass.:  Harvard Business School Press.

Kay, K., Shipman, C. (2014). The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know. HarperBusiness.

Kiel, D. (2018). “4 Strategies for Closing the Coaching Gap for Mid-Level Academic Leaders.” Academic Impressions.

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.

Marcotte, A. (2015). “Teachers Give Girls Better Grades on Math Tests When They Don’t Know They Are Girls.” Slate.

Musselwhite, C. (2007). “Self Awareness and the Effective Leader.” Inc.

Seashore, C.N., Seashore, E.W., Weinberg, G.M. (1992). What Did You Say? The Art of Giving and Receiving Feedback. Bingham House Books.

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

Williams, S.  “Self-Awareness and Personal Development.” Leader Letter.

Wolf, J. (2017). “How to Avoid Gender Bias in the Workplace.” We First.

—. “The Power of Self-Awareness in Developing Leaders.” Learning Solutions.

Photo above by drmakete lab on Unsplash.