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In 2020, an Inside Higher Ed article unveiled a stark reality: Women continue to face significant underrepresentation in higher education leadership roles. It underscored the systemic barriers that limit opportunities and perpetuate inequity. But while representation is essential, achieving a numerical balance isn’t the only issue. Academia’s culture of overwork, reinforced by the relentless drive of women to prove our worth, undermines both our well-being and our potential as effective leaders. This pressure to constantly excel erodes our sense of self, leads to disillusionment and fuels the imposter phenomenon that plagues so many women leaders.

All of us, especially people of color, must navigate a double bind: We are expected to embody assertive leadership yet, at the same time, also maintain warm and nurturing qualities. Asserting ourselves risks being perceived as aggressive or “difficult,” deviating from conventional stereotypes of femininity. Even our efforts to be approachable can be misconstrued —a failure to maintain constant pleasantness may result in unfair characterizations. Our decisions, grounded in sound judgment, often face scrutiny, while similar choices from others may pass unchallenged. Additionally, we often shoulder disproportionate responsibilities— including relentless pressure to be accessible to students as well as take on additional service roles extending beyond our job descriptions to validate our competence. The constant pressure to succeed within the constraints of unrealistic expectations can leave us feeling stifled and unable to lead on our own terms.

As countless women leaders know all too well, the incessant demands to be “always on” suffocates authenticity and undermines our ability to lead in alignment with our values. This culture of constant availability forces us to confront a sobering truth: The traditional definition of leadership is fundamentally flawed. Its emphasis on individual strength, stoicism and endless accessibility leaves women leaders isolated and unsupported, struggling to conform to unrealistic expectations. Systemic change that fosters connection, builds community and safeguards our well-being is essential for creating truly inclusive and sustainable leadership models.

We must fight for such a long-term transformation, and in the meantime, we can also take powerful steps right now to redefine success on our own terms. It begins with embracing strategic focus, sustainable practices and the power of “no.” Setting boundaries poses a heightened challenge in higher education’s culture of overwork, yet prioritizing well-being is possible. I know this struggle firsthand. Like many women, I often feel trapped between the pressure to say “yes” and the fear of appearing less committed. Meanwhile, I have witnessed male colleagues easily cite family obligations when declining commitments. This double standard highlights the distinct obstacles that we as women in leadership frequently face.

Yet our constant pursuit of saying “yes” undermines our effectiveness. And saying “no” instead strategically creates the space necessary for focus, excellence and well-being. Setting boundaries fosters a more effective leadership approach in at least three key ways.

Protecting time for reflection. Boundaries allow us to carve out space for self-reflection. This clarity about our strengths, values and goals leads to more authentic decision-making and communication. Fostering trust amongst those we lead begins with understanding ourselves.

Embracing vulnerability. Being willing to acknowledge our limitations or seek support creates a culture where connection and trust can thrive. Leaders who project an image of infallibility create distance. Authentic leaders understand that acknowledging our humanity is a source of strength, not weakness. Vulnerability fosters deeper connection with our teams, inspiring collaboration and innovation.

Saying “no” to foster growth. Strategically declining requests unlocks our ability to prioritize projects that align with our passions. That leads to a greater sense of engagement and fulfillment in our leadership roles. Spreading ourselves too thin leads to disengagement, while boundaries fuel focus and intrinsic motivation.

All that said, however, even the strongest boundaries cannot shield us from all the external pressures we face, including the well-intentioned yet insidious expectation to bring our “whole selves” to work, which ignores the very real challenges we face. For us, that expectation can become a demand to perform a version of ourselves that aligns with dominant cultural norms (i.e., those often associated with the majority culture), stifling our unique voices and identities. The pressure to conform cuts both ways: we may be judged for being too assertive if we fully embrace our leadership style and simultaneously dismissed for lacking “authenticity” if we mask aspects of ourselves to fit in.

True authenticity in leadership requires a psychologically safe environment where vulnerability is welcomed and difference is celebrated. Otherwise, the pressure to conform and mask aspects of our true selves leads to exhaustion, hindering our ability to build genuine connections and make impactful contributions as leaders.

In environments lacking psychological safety, code-switching—the act of intentionally adapting our communication style and aspects of our identity to fit the context—becomes a common survival tactic for many of us. As an immigrant, I am acutely aware of my accent and how it might be perceived. In certain settings, I feel pressure to modify my pronunciation or word choice to conform to dominant expectations of “professional” speech. While I realize that can be a vital tool for self-preservation and navigating bias, it comes at a cost. The constant vigilance required to monitor speech, mannerisms and even appearance for the sake of acceptance can leave us feeling disconnected from our true selves. The fear of our “authentic” ways being misinterpreted creates a perpetual sense of unease, eroding our confidence and hindering genuine connection.

However, it’s crucial to find pockets of safety where we can express more of ourselves and build alliances. These safe spaces allow us to connect genuinely with others, ultimately fostering a more inclusive and innovative work environment. This strategic authenticity, coupled with mentors and champions who understand our experiences, is essential.

For women of color, a more empowering model recognizes that authentic leadership involves multiple aspects of our identity. It embraces strategic code-switching as a tool for navigating biased environments while also valuing spaces where we can safely express our full identities. True authenticity lies in having the discernment to navigate those complexities with confidence.

Yet often, instead of being empowered by this ability, we are burdened by the pressure to shrink ourselves, constantly apologize and relentlessly strive for an unattainable perfection. This pressure manifests in countless ways. We might dim our own light to make others comfortable, minimizing our accomplishments or second-guessing our well-earned authority. The fear of backlash for being too assertive can stifle our voices in meetings or prevent us from fully owning our expertise. We fall into the trap of constantly apologizing—apologizing for necessary boundaries, for our human needs, or for simply existing within spaces we have every right to occupy. This cycle reinforces harmful self-doubt and perpetuates the false notion that we must shrink to earn our place. These expectations are particularly insidious because they are often reinforced by systemic biases and a lack of support structures within our institutions.

But what if we replaced shrinking with a fierce determination to shine? What if, instead of constant apologies, we embraced the concept of “good enough,” allowing ourselves grace when perfection is unattainable? Prioritizing inner peace and self-preservation doesn’t mean we lack ambition. It means understanding that true strength lies in prioritizing long-term sustainability. It means rejecting the idea that our leadership value is tied to suffering. Remember, we became leaders for a reason. Our skills, expertise and perspectives are valuable. Let us reclaim the confidence to trust our judgment and leadership abilities.

This shift toward embracing our whole selves isn’t about arrogance or ignoring the need for growth. It’s about replacing a harmful focus on shrinking with an empowering focus on authenticity, self-compassion and sustainable leadership practices.

We can begin this transformation in small but impactful ways. Instead of downplaying a necessary but potentially unpopular decision, we should own it with clarity and purpose: “While I understand this change may be initially disruptive, I’m confident it’s aligned with our departmental goals and will ultimately improve our processes ...”

When confronted with the pressure to be universally liked, we need to remind ourselves: “Empathetic leadership doesn’t mean sacrificing strong boundaries or compromising my values to please everyone.”

If facing the unfair expectation to work tirelessly to “prove” ourselves, we need to reframe it with a focus on results: “My commitment is to deliver high-quality outcomes, not endless work hours. My accomplishments will speak volumes.”

Meanwhile just as important, let’s turn our gaze outward, demanding systemic changes that reduce the pressure for women leaders to shrink. Higher education institutions must partner with us in creating this equitable future. While individual strategies are important, dismantling this culture of shrinking hinges on institutional transformation—toward inclusive mentorship, transparent promotion pathways and work-life balance policies that truly support leaders at all levels. We must imagine and lead academia to a place where women leaders no longer must choose between burnout and authenticity—to a world where we can thrive and lead with our full brilliance.

Roshni Rao is assistant vice provost of doctoral and postdoctoral life design at Johns Hopkins University.

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