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.
One college unexpectedly found that female engineering students responded particularly well to its project-based learning approach. Experts say the curriculum could help attract and retain women in the STEM fields.
This essay is as timely as it is unlikely. Timely, because many studies have correlated economic crises, such as the one corroding the academic job market as well as so many other career prospects, with a rise in domestic abuse. Unlikely, because I am far from the type of person whom one would expect to chronicle personal experience in this area.
None of the stereotypes apply. I am a professor at a respected university with what many people (not just my mother) would describe as an international reputation in her field. The product of a white, upper-middle-class professional household, I seldom heard my father raise his voice to my mother -- his raising his hand would have been inconceivable. Their marriage was perhaps not one made in heaven, but neither was it an instance of cruelty by any stretch of the imagination. And I did not and do not have a pattern of involvement with abusive partners; indeed, for the past 22 years I have enjoyed a very happy and stable relationship with a compassionate and supportive man.
I had thought I had every reason to anticipate a happy and stable relationship in my erstwhile marriage as well. My ex-husband and I shared many cultural interests and were anticipating careers in the same field within the humanities, with similar pedigrees and similarly strong academic records. By chance my career, however, started more smoothly than his, despite his impressive credentials and abilities, indeed gifts. I finished graduate school a year before he did in the ‘70s — shortly after the precipitous decline in the job market -- and obtained a tenure-track appointment while he was completing his dissertation. We then moved for compelling personal reasons, and I was fortunate enough to find an academic position again, but he did not do so.
My ex-husband had slapped me once early in our marriage when, because I had not understood and hence had not followed his instructions during a household repair, a small amount of water fell on him. I was shocked, but I viewed the episode as an aberration. It was not.
That event suggests that the recurrence of such abuse cannot be wholly blamed on his not having a job. And after all, many unemployed people do not descend into such behavior, while many who are guilty of it hold stable jobs. Nonetheless, the timing persuades me that my ex-husband’s not obtaining the sort of position he had hoped for contributed significantly to the recurrence of wife-beating. For shortly after we had moved and I, but not he, held an academic appointment, physical abuse started again. He pinched, shoved, and hit me with some regularity over a period of about a year. Not by any means the most violent wife-beating, but quite enough, thank you, to leave significant black-and-blue marks on one occasion and less visible scars on the others. The physical abuse was accompanied by persistent belittling remarks. Throughout all this, my ex-husband continued to appear in public as a charming and highly educated gentleman and a courteous husband. I later learned that this Jekyll-Hyde scenario is a common symptom of pathologies like his.
Why did I put up with it? Barely able to believe that this was happening between people like us, I made excuses for him, justifying his behavior as a regrettable but understandable response to his unemployment, which was clearly all the more difficult for him because I had an attractive job in the same field. The contrast between his public and private behavior made it harder to confront the events squarely, as did the ways the situation sapped my own self-confidence. Like many victims of domestic abuse, I began to blame myself, not realizing that although I had made real mistakes, such as occasional tactless remarks, they neither explained nor justified this physical and emotional maltreatment.
Moreover, like many wife-beaters, he repeatedly seemed to repent. On the several occasions when I finally resolved to leave, he admitted that situations for which he had blamed only me were in fact in large measure his responsibility, and he promised to get therapy. These apparent reversals were, I was to discover, as much a pattern as the violence itself, and the therapy never materialized.
His career not only got back on track but flourished after that year of unemployment — a good though temporary job one year, a tenure-track job the next, the publication of a well-received book by a leading press, and so on. The physical abuse stopped shortly after he gained those academic positions, though the emotional analogues to it did not, and for that and many other reasons I finally, belatedly, got a divorce.
What I learned is relevant to anyone, man or woman, suffering domestic abuse.
Realizing that stressful circumstances outside the home -- and one's own behavior -- may have contributed to tension is a very different matter from excusing the behavior or shouldering all the responsibility oneself. Distinguish compassion from submission: it's healthy to understand the financial pressures that might bring out this type of violence in some individuals, but no one should accept its continuation. Be alert to connections between the physical and verbal, recognizing that physical abuse often merely goes into remission or resurfaces as verbal wife-beating. Apologies and promises need to be backed up with concrete and reliable evidence for believing that change will occur.
But one step must precede and accompany all of these: Avoid the temptation to excuse or deny the abuse by saying, "This isn't really occurring, and it will stop any minute because things like this don't happen to a professional couple like us." They can. They do. And, sadly, in this academic job market, they will.
The author of this piece, who asked to remain anonymous, is a tenured professor.