Essay on impact of women rising through the ranks in academe
Recently, I had lunch with a group of women who had moved to the upper levels of leadership in higher education. As is usual when such a group gathers, we talked about some of our more “challenging” moments as the first women provosts, deans or presidents. But this time, the stories were about team-building experiences that didn’t quite work when a woman was added to the mix.
One dean recounted the weekend retreat she was required to attend at the president’s cottage, where after a day of activities, everyone was expected to join the others... in the hot tub, which makes for an awkward splash if you’re the only one wearing a two-piece. Another woman described the “bonding” day her executive vice president led that involved a race with her colleagues in the equivalent of bumper cars. And still another described a hunting and fishing expedition more akin to a men’s sweat lodge.
Each story left me wondering: with the increasing mix of men and women in prominent leadership roles, is something lost if institutions of learning have to adjust their informal interactions? Do the guys no longer feel free to be, well, guys, if a woman is suddenly in a cabinet meeting? And is that a bad thing? I don’t think so.
When I first went to graduate school, a wise senior professor commented one day on how glad he was that more women were in his classes. “It had started to feel too much like a men’s club,” he announced. Similarly, another colleague once told me that a member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet had remarked how relieved he was not to be in a “men’s club” any longer, now that Thatcher was around. In other words, the presence of women — or I should say the presence of women and men together — moves things up a notch. It makes men grow up.
Or put in a more ladylike way, groups of mixed gender encourage more professional interactions to the benefit of all. Such professionalism allows everyone to develop more balanced lives where colleagues are expected to be just good colleagues, and faculty then see mutual respect modeled. Sure, some may become friends, but that’s not the point. And maybe it frees the men from having to join in the hot tub as well!
In fact, the potent combination of women and men in campus leadership together challenges old school thinking. It counteracts men’s tendencies to invest everything in their work because when women lean in to opportunities of institutional advancement, men are also required to become partners at home.
And when both contribute in leading both a university and a home, each benefits. Men gain the freedom to develop a rich set of relationships in and outside academe while developing a fuller range of human and emotional experiences, made more possible with the presence of women. And for women, the university begins to recognize — and affirm — the existence of a life beyond the classrooms.
With women now leading more at higher levels of academic institutions, both the workplace and personal lives can shift, allowing us to form real partnerships in the process of negotiating our ever-changing realities. Rather than creating unhealthy dependencies or enabling behavior that responds only to rigid cultural expectations — like the “guys' clubs” can do — both discover a new freedom to grow as human beings. As one author put it, “The difference between the equal sharers (co-parenting and dual career) and other couples was not that mothers cared less, but that fathers cared more.”
So when women “lean in” at the academic leadership table, that is, when they advance in their scholarship and campus leadership roles, men begin to care more about their children and others, not less. But when we don’t collaborate, women and men alike tend to work under the assumption of stereotypes perpetuated by the popular media and the unfortunate data of lopsided gender roles in higher education, rather than enjoy the range of gifts that each individual can contribute, man or woman.
In short, we rise together. At another “bonding” retreat for leaders, I once played the game where two individuals sit back-to-back on the floor. We had to lean into each other, exerting equal pressure, in order to stand. It’s a good metaphor for what can happen when men and women also rise to yet greater heights and health. A woman doesn’t hesitate to lean in and a man meets the challenge because they need each other to get off the ground. We rise together when each exerts the same amount of pressure, benefiting students and faculty alike. And when that happens, I suspect the stories will be much different at the next lunch gatherings.
Janel Curry became the first woman provost at Gordon College in 2012. As a cultural geographer, she has served as a professor, chair and dean in higher education for over 30 years.