26 September 2023

School of thought: Pushing for gender equality in higher ed leadership

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Susan Bartel* says the traditional tenets of great leadership come from the perspective of men studying men, so innovative changes are needed in higher education to achieve gender parity.

Photo: MD Duran

In 2018, women have galvanised en masse demanding gender equality in the workplace, which has sparked discussions in every industry.

While the topic has been the focus of discussion in the academic community for quite some time, there is a global focus on the need for innovative changes in higher education for gender parity.

Leaders need to be risk takers and change agents, entrepreneurial, agile and flexible.

Evidence would suggest the characteristics of leadership needed for this kind of change lean more toward collaborative leadership styles and high emotional intelligence.

This is a leadership style most often associated with women.

Yet, most widely accepted tenets of great leadership come from the perspective of men studying men.

Most of the leadership research has been focused on men.

As a consequence, women have been judged against the standard of male behaviours and characteristics for strong leadership, even though leadership is consistently failing.

Gender bias and role incongruity still exist, even in more contemporary studies of leadership.

Women continue to struggle with the challenge of balancing two roles: being a strong leader and perceptions of what it means to be female.

If higher education wants to be stronger and innovative in this ever-changing world, then it needs to do a better job of integrating and appreciating what both men and women bring to the leadership table.

Benefits offered by women in leadership roles

Women leaders can provide unique benefits and qualities for higher education leadership:

Multitasking ability:

In addition to a focus on interpersonal relationships, women still have a strong task orientation, as demonstrated by the organisation and multiple roles needed to run a family.

Women are typically better at multitasking and processing a lot of different information simultaneously.

Inclusive decision-making:

Women are more likely to have communal, team-focused and collaborative leadership styles, where men more typically act alone in decisions.

Men also tend to internalise their thought processes more, resulting in people not always understanding decisions by top leaders.

More effective communication:

Women’s strong communication skills serve an institution well.

Women tend to use more collaborative, cooperative language than men, who are more likely to use power-based stances and aggressive words.

Transparency, authenticity and well-developed listening, speaking and writing skills are all key to successful leadership.

Employment challenges faced by women

Higher education has not avoided the dearth of women leaders in higher positions who have their own systemic and personal barriers:

Overcoming societal expectations:

Women face stereotypical assumptions about how they should behave and the incongruity a role has with societal expectations.

Juggling multiple roles:

Most women, married or single, have to manage more diverse roles in society including caregiver, worker and volunteer.

Less mobility:

Employment opportunities for selection as a senior leader may be more limited because women are less able to relocate with family.

The assumption that the man’s career takes precedence, as well as a likely higher income, puts women at a disadvantage when applying for jobs that require relocation.

Inadequate qualifications:

Historically, women have not had the terminal degree expected in most senior positions.

However, more women are now pursuing a doctoral degree but may still remain underemployed.

Limited mentorship:

There are fewer role models and mentors to support and encourage emerging female leaders, and the informal networks are more limited for women.

Limiting self-perceptions:

Finally, a woman’s own assumptions about appropriate behaviours and roles may limit her perception as an acceptable candidate.

Retention, not only recruitment, is important

In many cases, institutional employment policies will need to change to ensure retention of female leaders.

Perhaps the biggest deterrent to long-term survival in a senior position is competition for time.

Women are more likely to have primary responsibility for family.

The expectations for long hours, weekend and evening activities make it more challenging for women to stay in these positions without giving up their own expectations and assumptions regarding a central core of their identity: a mother, wife, or partner.

Additionally, many experienced older women may have care-giving responsibilities for parents.

These demands conflict with traditional expectations of availability and time as a senior administrator.

For single women, the expected time commitments may contribute to workaholic tendencies to the exclusion of time for their health, social or emotional wellbeing.

The challenges of working harder than men, but for less pay, respect and influence, can lead to self-doubt and lack of confidence in their ability to handle all they are asked to do.

Changes needed to improve gender parity

Chief academic officers and presidents identify diversity and inclusion as one of the top priorities for higher education.

The talk about access and availability for all should not only include students.

Students need to see role models and have firsthand experience of multiple perspectives.

If higher education is committed to gender equality then institutions need to implement family-friendly leave policies, childcare facilities and telecommuting opportunities.

They should make provision for formal and informal mentor opportunities, and flex time approaches to accommodate family and personal commitments.

In addition, when more innovative policies and practices have been made it can lead back to gender bias and role stereotyping.

The subtle punishment for not being available is to withhold information, influential appointments and other meaningful opportunities.

This results in minimising a female leader’s informal connections as well, which keeps her “out of the loop” and affects power and influence.


Female students are continually taught that women can do anything.

Millions are spent on grants to open doors in STEM and other career areas, and yet in many higher education institutions students likely only see older white men as the leaders.

It must be acknowledged that in the past 20 years there has been increased societal acceptance of women in leadership and many institutions are committed to making the changes.

Overall, these institutions are the exception and systemic barriers to entry and retention still exist with no clear path for change.

It may take a few more generations before a way is found to truly balance healthy work lives for all and appreciate the leadership differences that can contribute to multiple perspectives and an overall stronger organisation.

But, the fight for gender equality must go on.

* Susan Bartel is Assistant Director of the higher education leadership doctoral program at Maryville University in St Louis, USA.

This article first appeared at www.educationdive.com.

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