Nearly 100 colleges and universities and even more K-12 districts are joining a public campaign to advance gender equity across the globe today for 50/50 Day. Now in its second year, the event aims to engage leaders and communities in critical discussions about gender equity from different perspectives.
The challenge of gender equity is not new to higher ed. The American Council on Education launched a “Moving the Needle” campaign in early 2016 with a goal of ensuring women make up half of all higher ed chiefs by 2030, up from the current 30%.
And we’ve noted previously there is not just an issue of women as leaders, but also their portrayal in the media and treatment by colleagues.
I have received emails from women presidents who say they were ignored and mistreated in board members and on campus, and worse, ogled and objectified by male colleagues and others with decision-making authority. Still others have said they left their departments or decided to withdraw from consideration for leadership positions because they were made to feel uncomfortable by men.
Just recently, U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) asserted the reason there’s a teacher pay issue in K-12 education is “because a majority of elementary and secondary teachers are women, and a majority of college professors are men.”
My colleague Jarrett Carter, who writes for this publication, and Crystal de Gregory, director of the Kentucky State University Atwood Institute on Race, Education and the Democratic Ideal, weighed the questions of cultural norms in higher ed and how much we allow sexism and misogyny in the name of “tradition” and the way it’s always been done in a recent commentary about the startling number of departures of women leaders from the presidency. And their questions are valid: To what extent do smaller nuances we don’t even often consider like, for instance, the prevalence of fundraising conversations being frequently had on the golf course or in a cigar lounge, impact the job for women leaders?
How do gender biases and stereotypes around personality impact the perception of women leaders and the willingness of their colleagues to work collaboratively with them to move the institution forward and achieve common goals? A 2016 report from the American Association of University Women, “Barriers and Biases: The Status of Women in Leadership,” said that while “leadership is not inherently masculine,” “[b]ecause white men have held most leadership positions in society for so long, the concept of leadership has been infused with stereotypically masculine traits: aggression, decisiveness, willingness to engage in conflict, strength and so on.”
The report goes on to say there is not evidence to suggest either gender makes an inherently better leader, but different intersectional identities complicate the way their colleagues, superiors and subordinates interact with them.
It is incumbent upon everyone in higher education to look inward and consider how their campus environments and their own biases might play out in this case — and then to work to solve the problem. If it is true for students that a growth mindset means checking your own biases at the door, the same is true for women on the faculty and in administration.
But beyond checking biases, it is time for higher education to reconsider “the way we’ve always done things,” and evaluate how traditions and practices of the traditionally male-dominated industry might make it more difficult for women in leadership. Further, it is important to consider how success is evaluated for both genders, and to create clear, quantifiable benchmarks for any leader to attain to be deemed successful.
But it is also checking the male colleague makes at comment about a woman’s appearance or hits on her or makes her feel like she has to wear her husband’s suits to board meetings to be taken seriously. It’s making it clear that sexual harassment will not be tolerated at any level; it isn’t just an issue for students at fraternity events or around the athletics facilities.
And it’s just as important for women to be mindful to support and not be overly critical of and difficult to each other.
An entire cultural shift is needed, from the top to the bottom.