16 Insights for Women Leaders

Bette L. Bottoms provides advice for women who are interested in senior administrative positions in academe.

September 1, 2016

My improbable path started in the mid-1960s on a southern Virginia tobacco farm where I received a strong but basic and sheltered education in an all-white grammar and high school that were legacies of Massive Resistance to desegregation. I felt distinctly apart from what was at that time a suffocating racism, a reaction that would ultimately influence my teaching, research and administrative initiatives.

I left the rural south because I felt an uncommon power and freedom to do so, which I attribute largely to not having been treated “like a girl” growing up. Instead of cooking, I drove tractors and pickups, fed cows, and trailed easily along behind my father in a man’s world that I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be in. I’ve moved pretty boldly in that world ever since, although I did encounter a few challenges within higher education administration to that easy feeling.

My undergraduate degree at supportive Randolph-Macon Woman’s College led to graduate work and a career in academe at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I’ve always balanced a love of research and teaching/mentoring with a commitment to good citizenship, through service in roles such as director of undergraduate studies, associate dean, vice provost for undergraduate affairs, and dean of the honors college.

Administration suits my sense of civic responsibility, provides an outlet for my impatience with problems and inefficiencies, and involves fun work with smart people in close teams. It taught me to work more efficiently than ever and see the big picture, and it allowed me to make the university a better place for students and faculty members. Consider it yourself if these sound like benefits and you find a position that fits your values, interests and strengths. Then consider these pieces of advice that I’ve learned along my way:

1. Don’t take an administrative position before being promoted to full professor rank. Faculty are not promoted for service, and those people who ask you for service will turn right around and vote against your promotion later if your publications aren’t strong. If you can’t stop yourself, then take the position part-time, negotiate specific support for your scholarship, and work what will be the two full-time-equivalent jobs to get promoted quickly -- and realize the odds are against you. Remember: If you don’t get promoted, a thousand doors will always be closed to you.

2. Academe is a breeding ground for anxiety and self-doubt, especially for women. Don’t let that anxiety and doubt keep you from taking an administrative position or acting confidently once in it (after you’ve been promoted to professor). You are every bit as good as those who simply have more self-confidence and self-promotional skills.

3. Cultivate excellent mentors who will tell you in confidence the things that I cannot write here.

4. Choose wisely among the many important things you could do, then forget or delegate the rest. Regarding delegation, don’t think the “boss” role is somehow non-egalitarian or unseemly. If you don’t delegate everything someone else can do, you won’t be doing what you were hired to do.

5. Surround yourself with wonderful people who give you strength, friends as well as staff members. Hire the very best, smartest staff -- not necessarily those with the most specific experience. (If you hire correctly, you will rarely have to fire.) Then take care of them: Pay them fairly, give them credit, take the blame for their mistakes and celebrate their path upward. But never mistake them to be friends or expect some emotional version of loyalty.

6. Define “power” as “opportunity”: having the resources to fix problems and design policies and programs to help others.

7. Be very good at what you do, which takes very long hours and very hard work.

8. Build trust through transparency and wide engagement. When possible, look outward to the community and collective action to accomplish a shared goal.

9. Borrowed from Jim Edgar, a former Governor of Illinois: Remember the three C’s: compassion, civility, and compromise.

10. Borrowed from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do what you feel in your heart to be right -- for you’ll be criticized anyway.” That goes well with a side of, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Be a duck -- let things roll right off your back. And for God's sake, don’t go into administration if your goal is to be loved.

11. Be a champion for those without voice -- the marginalized in your community, the untenured in your department, the underrepresented and first-generation students seeking admission to and success in your university. (More than 40 percent of freshmen nationally do not graduate, amassing debt and the serious lifelong costs of not having a college degree. This is a moral issue, one that is every administrator’s responsibility to fix.)

12. Prepare to be treated as the living incarnation of stereotypes including “administrator,” “woman,” and probably worse, “woman administrator” -- but probably not “leader,” which is reserved for men. Those stereotypes underlie the double standard: Leader-like qualities are praised in men because they are stereotype-consistent, yet the same qualities are held against women, because they are stereotype-inconsistent. A strong male leader is the ideal; a strong woman is a bitch (an aggressively disrespectful term with no male equivalent). As a result, women still occupy far fewer leadership positions and earn significantly less than men. That isn’t something you can fix, but one thing that might help is to get to know people personally, giving them something to judge you by other than stereotypes.And think carefully before you react to unfairness. Do you want to die on that particular hill (confirming the stereotype that women are too quick to take offense)? Or do you want to hold off until you secure a platform from which you can change the underlying system that often condones, dismisses, or fails to recognize sexism?

13. I despise having to say it, especially after the prior point, but a suit and heels go a long way. Sexist advice? No, pragmatic. You’ll have fewer people (OK, men) that you’ll literally have to look up to, and you’ll feel more confident, be perceived as more credible, and in turn, be more persuasive, which is sometimes the heart of an administrator’s work. Research clearly shows that looks and height do indeed matter for most measurable aspects of success, especially for women. Unfortunately, women are expected to be beautiful, and if not, we’re disliked, disrespected and disparaged, especially as we age. But the hell of it is that beauty also holds us back. While I was a dean, at a development gala, a senior male administrator looked me up and down in front of colleagues and donors and proclaimed, “Oh, I didn’t recognize you; you look like a model tonight.” As Senator Kirsten Gillibrand noted in her recent memoir aimed at getting women “off the sidelines and into the game” of politics, regardless of the speaker’s intentions (which are sometimes genuinely kind), comments about both beauty and the lack thereof strip women of our authority -- they “put us in our place.” And they are rarely made about male leaders.

14. Always maintain your tenured line and your scholarship, because they are your largest sources of respect, strength and courage. Then, do the Right Thing. If actions around you are unethical or immoral, you must act on principle (or else be an enabler), even if it leads you to leave your administrative position (which is better than leaving your dignity). Find another one of the many open administrative positions nationwide or return to your wonderful job as a professor.

15. If your job stops rewarding you, makes you unhappy or bores you, move on.

16. Finally, mind your health and get your life priorities straight. At a healthy 49, I survived (without any damage) what was very nearly a massive stroke after tearing my carotid artery while swimming. (Who knew, right?) Add up all the rare and common bad things that can happen, and you have pretty good odds that you’re not going to live forever.

Administration is difficult -- directed by others who may or may not be excellent themselves, with sharp deadlines and swift penalties for mistakes and the weight of responsibility for decisions affecting many others. But it’s a noble calling, if answered nobly. If you are considering it, I hope some of this advice is useful to you.


Bette L. Bottoms is a professor of psychology and dean emerita of the Honors College at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This article has been adapted from Women in the Academy: Learning from Our Diverse Career Pathways, published by Lexington Books.


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