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When it comes to gender equity, many women in higher education worry that their institutions are prematurely patting themselves on the back. If we just look at the numbers, women are well represented in higher education administration. But wage disparities persist, and women are still underrepresented at the most senior levels. The situation is even more challenging for women of color.
Moreover, even at institutions where women hold cabinet-level positions -- including the presidency and provostship -- the real story is that women from top to bottom often find that equal representation doesn’t guarantee equity in opportunity or treatment. Female staff and faculty alike observe male counterparts advancing with thinner files. Instructors worry about gender bias in teaching evaluations. In candid moments, even women presidents, provosts and other leaders discuss the gender bias they must confront from boards, fellow top administrators and senior faculty.
In researching and writing Beyond Leaning In: Gender Equity and What Organizations Are Up Against, I talked to women across a wide range of sectors about the challenges they’ve faced while advancing in their careers. In higher education, my conversations included female faculty and administrators from early career to senior administrators. The barriers that women in higher education described were virtually identical to what I heard in other organizations, whether nonprofit or private sector. Those barriers include day-to-day implicit biases, differing hiring and promotion standards, uneven workloads, and a lack of acknowledgment of generational differences.
Women in higher education appear to differ, however, in that they expressed an even greater frustration with the disconnect between rhetoric versus reality. Colleges and universities tout their numbers when it comes to gender, but they don’t look often enough at the experiences beneath those numbers.
As in other industries, female faculty, staff and administrators in higher education encounter bias regularly and then wonder, is it me? Do I just have a bad boss?
To women in higher education, my message is this: it’s not just you. Women who work in colleges and universities face the same systemic and cultural biases that are prevalent in other sectors. That’s true all the way up, down and around the org chart, from early-career staff to assistant professors to top administrators. And the global pandemic has only intensified the challenges for women in higher education.
My advice for college and university women is to be aware of three specific challenges:
The conflation of intent versus impact. Implicit bias can be hard to detect, because it’s usually exhibited by people with good intentions. Let’s say a senior faculty member undermines a woman assistant professor in a departmental meeting by rudely talking over her. It might not seem like a big deal -- except that it tells her that her ideas are not worthy, sends that same signal to other participants who will have power over her career and excludes an idea that could have helped the department.
Now let’s say that same senior colleague -- who could be a man or a woman -- is otherwise a supportive mentor to the young professor’s scholarly work. Maybe they even helped her get hired. Maybe they are an outspoken advocate for women broadly. Any of these facts may lead the assistant professor to second-guess herself, feel bad saying anything and internalize the bias.
Many colleges and universities have adopted policies intended to catch unconscious bias in hiring and promotion. That’s a vital step toward a more equitable workplace.
Yet unfortunately, even the most robust policies don’t stand up to the thousands of day-to-day interactions, like the faculty meeting that I mentioned earlier, where women are subject to bias. Women need to know they should not feel ashamed or apologetic for their frustration when undermined by other people with good intentions. Using intent versus impact language can help frame difficult conversations -- whether initiated by women who experienced the negative impact or (ideally) more senior colleagues who want to intervene but don’t know how.
The “bet with” versus the “prove it again” phenomenon. Take two staff in a representative university’s marketing department -- let’s call them Chad and Haley. They’ve each done an excellent job on a recent marketing campaign. But they’re also relatively early in their careers.
Due to the “bet with” versus the “prove it again” phenomenon, the conversation about Chad is more likely to be “Chad is early in his career, but he’s done an excellent job on that recent campaign. Let’s bet with and promote him.” Whereas the conversation about Haley more frequently sounds like this: “Haley has done an excellent job on that recent campaign, but she’s early in her career. We’ll have to see more.” In both cases, there’s a “but.” For Chad, the “but” is a reason to take a chance on him; for Haley, it’s a reason not to.
This scenario represents why so many women are often frustrated with being told to “lean in.” Doing so doesn’t always get the same results for them as it does for men. Simply being aware of the prevalence of the “prove it again” phenomenon can help women combat it by equipping themselves with data about their contributions and cultivating sponsors and mentors who can help speak for their successes. But more important is that managers, leaders and human resources departments recognize the phenomenon and examine how they determine promotions, assign special projects and offer other opportunities to women.
Generational differences. Women are often criticized for not supporting one another and labeled as “queen bees” or “catty.” That can certainly happen. The bigger challenge that emerged in my research, however, is that women in different generations often have quite different perspectives.
For example, previous generations of women fought explicit bias and often felt they needed to succeed by playing by the rules of the “boys’ club.” Rising generations more aggressively want to push back against those norms -- whether related to work-life balance or how men versus women are socialized to participate in meetings. At the same time, older women worry that younger women don't understand why those in their generation have picked the battles they have and the full extent of the barriers that await them.
We need more open conversations across both genders and generations about how to support one another and understand each other’s perspectives. And we need to update policies and cultural practices that disadvantage women but about which previous generations looked the other way, such as the disproportionate service burdens placed on female faculty, especially those of color.
Many people in higher education think the challenges for women faculty and administrators are a thing of the past, but the problems definitely still persist. It’s well past time to reflect on what a more gender-equitable future for higher education should look like. In my interviews, women in higher education noted that when their institutions addressed gender equity, they tended to focus on representation, harassment and leave policies. Those issues are all important, but they represent only a sliver of the daily issues that college and university women in higher education must grapple with.
My final message to women in higher education: know you’re not alone, imagining things or oversensitive. Systemic and cultural bias continues to exist, and it matters. You must advocate for yourself and find the right supporters to help you steward your career. But more than that, the real is power in numbers. Women across generations and levels of seniority need to openly discuss the challenges they’ve faced in order to collaborate with one another on the policies and practices that need to change -- whether that’s related to meeting culture, hiring and promotion, or how work is assigned.
Moreover, any solutions will fail without male involvement in both planning and execution. To everyone in higher education: recognize that it’s time to turn inward, examine the gender equity problem and how it looks to rising generations, and act collectively and systemically.