The three key ingredients to female success in academia

The number of female presidents in US institutions is rising, but there’s still work to do for women in leadership to achieve equality. Lisa Eiden-Dillow outlines three ways to empower women in academia

Lisa Eiden-Dillow's avatar
4 Mar 2024
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Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

Colorado State University Global

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As I sit in a room full of women and men focused on creating a democracy in higher education, I am reminded that women continue to face challenges to reach the head of the table – or even to have a seat.

In fact, during a recent conference, I heard a woman say: “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.”

Women are leading universities, governing boards, departments and academic programmes. Yet women, and specifically women of colour, struggle to stay in leadership positions and build momentum for the next generation to follow. Creating a foundation for future female leaders now will help to minimise these challenges and create a space of equality.

According to the American Council on Education (ACE) American College Presidents report from 2018, 30 per cent of college presidents were women, with only 5 per cent women of colour. In the 2023 edition, the number of female presidents rose to 33 per cent. It is a positive progression, but there is a lot of work to be done for women to become equal with men in leadership roles. What are the secret ingredients for women to find success, a sense of purpose and equality in their leadership careers?

Celebrate your staff’s individual gifts

Women have unique gifts that should be celebrated. An article by the American Psychological Association (2023) noted that female leaders create a space of collaboration, increased productivity and inspiration. Women also offer a layer of personalisation to their leadership repertoire. Emphasising the talents each individual has enhances a team and helps to break  the cycle of repetitive approaches.

Women leaders are more likely to support their team and focus on their needs, demonstrating transformational and servant leadership styles. They showcase the talents of their teams and encourage progression, which supports the good within an organisation and inspires individual team members.

Create mentorship programmes

Creating professional development opportunities like mentorship programmes, focused on connecting with other women, specifically women of colour, can build a foundation to encourage and influence all women. Particularly, programmes like this can support young female leaders on their path to senior leadership.

In an article focused on Latina leadership in higher education, interviews with women in senior-level positions revealed that although they may have a seat at the leadership table, they struggle to connect with colleagues at their institution. Many of these women were the only Latina in a senior-level leadership position, saddling them with an unwanted role of tokenism. As one leader noted, being a mentor, a good role model and a Latina voice all fell on her shoulders. Having a group of like-minded women or a “posse” was essential to her in supporting the path to leadership.

The support and allyship of male team members can also have a positive impact on the growth of female leadership. Men still make up the majority of leadership roles in higher education and are influential in campus and industry leadership. They can be a catalyst for women to obtain leadership positions. As a woman, tapping into male allyship or mentorship in your workplace can help carve out a networking path and support system.

Instil a sense of belonging

Women thrive in a space where they have the opportunity to share emotions, ideas and individuality. Finding a sense of belonging can support women in their rise to leadership positions and influence positive retention of staff, faculty and students. Dr Terrell Strayhorn first examined the sense of belonging in a student context in a 2023 article titled, Sense of belonging: changing the institution, not the individual, noting that a “sense of belonging is a feeling, a sensation, an affective, emotional response that has cognitive triggers and behavioural manifestations”. As an institution, creating a community where women can develop and grow professionally helps them feel valued.

Leadership skill development and practices focused on positions traditionally held by men can also help women enhance skills outside of their natural path. Professional development in the areas of entrepreneurial adventures, fundraising, budget and financial management, and crisis management surfaced in the 2023 American College Presidents Report as areas that women were not always leading but wanted to learn more about.

Creating space for women to move into and thrive in leadership roles requires several ingredients. Celebrating female gifts and talents, encouraging mentorship and allyship, and developing a community that purposely promotes a sense of belonging can all support the growth of female leaders in higher education and make a successful recipe.

Lisa Eiden-Dillow is director of faculty operations at CSU Global.

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