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Grating Expectations

April 24, 2014

A new study examines some of the problems faced by female college administrators and details their feelings that women face more scrutiny and different expectations than men.

Thirty-five female college leaders, including 15 presidents and chancellors, told their stories to researchers from the the Center for Creative Leadership, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Higher Education Resource Services, known as HERS.

“I think we’re well into an era where women working is quite the norm, yet very little about most workplaces has changed – essentially a ’50s office with women,” said Judith White, the president and executive director of Denver-based HERS.

The 35 academic leaders include deans, vice presidents, provosts, presidents and chancellors. Fifteen of the women identified themselves as minorities.

Because the names and full transcripts are not being made public, a selection of anonymized quotes shows candor from female leaders found few other places. The full study itself is not yet available because it is being considered for publication by a journal.

Two-thirds of women reported they were discouraged or sabotaged as they sought or held leadership roles and two-thirds reported thinking different things were expected of women and men.

One remark from an leader who was interviewed said women have to be more careful than men about how their tone is perceived.

“I think men get away with not-very-collegial behavior without paying as high a price as women pay," she said.

One woman’s failure can be considered a failure of all women by male peers, according to one if the interviews.

 “After she left, you did hear, ‘Well, she was a woman,’ ” a person said.  “You do hear that. ‘We tried a woman once that didn’t work out,’ that kind of thing. That, I think, is still on the tips of people’s tongues when women fail.... Women are expected to be nicer, smilier, more nurturing, etc. etc.”

A third remark reveals starkly different expectations for the husbands of female presidents – which is to say, few if any – compared to the wives of male presidents.

“When you – the other women that I know who are presidents or who have been presidents of institutions – and I asked them about their husbands’ participation, they will say, ‘My husband did very little.  He might have come to one or two events in the year,’” one leader said, according to an excerpt provided by researchers. “Where men I’ve talked to their wives are expected to be, in a sense, at every event right at their side, actually, how would you say, socializing and soliciting, almost, in a way.”

The female leaders also talked about the obvious demands on women trying to have children -- and the isolation, felt also by men, of being lonely at the top of an organization.

Still, that loneliness may be keener for women, said Kelly Hannum, one of the researchers.

“Men will talk about it's lonely at the top, but I think it’s particularly pertinent for women at the top, because there are fewer,” she said.

Nationally, about 26 percent of presidents are women, according to a 2012 report by the American Council on Education.

White, the head of HERS, said more needs to be done to encourage women to take leadership roles early in life. A 2011 Princeton University report, for instance, found that undergraduate women – even if they are active in campus life – can get left behind if they don’t seek leadership roles.

White said organizations, including her own, should learn from the findings and use them to try to make more opportunities for women as early as possible in their academic life.

“When that pattern starts so early, it gets reinforced in interesting ways,” she said. “Wanting to start early begins to make a difference.”

On the positive side, female leaders said they had mentors and felt they could set an example themselves for other women.

“Some of the female deans I’ve hired have said, ‘I wouldn’t have considered this job except that you were the provost,’ ” one leader said. “It isn’t me personally. It’s the idea of a woman being able to have a position of authority and the success.”

 

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