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According to a recent survey, 23 percent of women globally are considering leaving the workforce due to stress, increased workloads and accompanying work-life imbalance during the COVID-19 pandemic. In higher ed, as in the corporate sector, women leaders have tended to do more, not less during this time, and women of color in particular have experienced increasingly unmanageable workloads.

At the same time, higher ed, like other sectors, has placed renewed urgency on antiracism and change, and it is BIPOC leaders who are most often called upon to bring about this change. Women, and especially women of color, are doing much of the work from which organizations and institutions benefit, yet they are not being recognized or rewarded for this work. Women of color administrators and academics continue to experience toxic environments rife with microaggressions, tokenism, harassment and bullying.

When a Black, Latinx, Asian or Native American woman reaches a senior leadership position in higher ed, they are still typically the first to hold that role. Since leadership continues to be white and male dominated, they may also find that as a trailblazer they are the only woman of color in a senior faculty cohort or leadership team, perhaps even the only woman. Among faculty, for example, only 1.6 percent of full professorships are held by Black women and only 2.1 percent by Latinx women.

As a woman of color in administration myself, I believe we are, by all counts, a very small group in senior positions in higher ed. Once in senior leadership positions, women of color routinely confront extra layers of scrutiny regarding competency, potential for leadership and likability and are more likely to be perceived as too emotional. As servant leaders, women of color may find that we are more easily recognized as servants than leaders. While the selflessness and care associated with servant leadership aligns with gendered stereotypes of women, authority and power may be less readily accepted in women of color since these do not align with racialized and gendered stereotypes.

Below I identify three areas university leadership teams should consider if they intend to support women of color in leadership positions. These suggestions will strengthen institutional commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion for women of color. The areas below address systemic and institutional barriers that women of color often confront in reaching leadership positions and as leaders.

No. 1: Leadership and succession plans. We need leaders who do not seek to mold individuals primarily through traditional male, cisgender leadership models that prioritize (over)confidence, competitiveness, hierarchies and individualism. Current mainstream understandings of leadership actively exclude women of color even as those women are called upon to bring about change across higher ed. While white women have made gains in top leadership positions in higher ed, women of color continue to be the most underrepresented.

As institutions seek to become more inclusive, examining leadership roles and developing succession plans is one tangible way to begin to identify long-standing patterns of exclusion connected to intersecting race and gender bias. Including diversity workshops and trainings not as one-time events but as the ongoing professional development expected of senior administrators ensures that core commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion are embedded and modeled in senior leadership. Explicitly including diversity, equity and inclusion goals in senior leaders’ evaluations helps ensure the applicability of new knowledge.

The following questions must be asked: Who holds the top leadership positions in your institution, now and in the past? How do policies and practices developed by senior leaders advance core institutional commitments to diversity, equity, inclusion and antiracism? How are senior leaders directly engaged in diversity workshops and trainings? How do the evaluations of senior leaders reflect institutional commitments to diversity? How are commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion embedded in succession plans? How do succession plans address the patterns of underrepresentation of women of color in higher ed—and in senior leadership more specifically?

No. 2: Internal leadership pathways and programs. As institutions work to define leadership and leadership practices more inclusively, they must also examine their internal leadership pathways and programs, whether in the context of succession plans or for new leadership opportunities. When seeking to diversify institutional or unit leadership, discussions often turn to problems in the pipeline and the need to focus on growing the pipeline in the short and long term. Equally important, however, is a focus on offering opportunities for professional development and advancement to those already in the institution. In spite of insistence that bidding wars are what prevent institutions from recruiting diverse faculty, the reality is that most qualified persons of color are not being actively recruited. Similarly, Black women’s experiences of being overlooked for internal senior leadership positions and promotions challenge arguments that there simply aren’t qualified women of color for internal or external senior leadership positions.

We know of the internal barriers women of color confront in higher ed. We also know that women, and women of color in particular, are less likely to be actively encouraged to view themselves as leaders within institutions. We need internal professional development and leadership programs that explicitly address diversity, equity and inclusion and that support and advocate for women of color as leaders. How do existing leadership programs in your institution move beyond implicitly including people of color to explicitly addressing and valuing the experiences of women of color in higher ed? What professional development opportunities and leadership programs exist specifically for women of color?

No. 3: Use of disaggregated data. We know from existing research that programs and efforts designed for white women do not necessarily address the needs of other groups, such as Black professionals. We must disaggregate diversity data to name and make visible challenges and opportunities for specific identities and groups. By grouping all women and people of color together, institutional numbers and diversity efforts may not accurately identify areas that need attention and have the potential to bring about substantive change. Disaggregated data can help identify and guide where efforts should be focused and resources invested. Which women are being excluded from which leadership areas in your institution, and in higher ed more broadly?

Even as research and personal experiences underscore that race and gender biases permeate higher ed, perceptions of racism in the workplace continue to be lower among white respondents than among people of color. To build more inclusive spaces, institutions must recognize and value the contributions, work and expertise of women of color. Asian American, Black, Latinx, Native and multiracial women must be part of the solution not only in supplying the required labor but in receiving support through concrete plans and pathways, and by being recognized as embodying leadership, for the benefit of all.

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