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The educational problem being addressed in this paper is the persistence of barriers to the advancement of women in higher education administration. Examples of these barriers include individual interpersonal biases (such as sex role stereotyping) and institutional biases (such as discriminatory policies used to recruit, select, retain, and promote employees). This is a problem because these barriers impede women’s career advancement and perpetuate significant gender disparities in senior leadership positions across higher education. Although women comprise nearly 50% of all administrative positions within higher education, they hold less than 30% of the top executive positions, and less than 20% of the seats on governing boards. This problem is important to address because of the significant potential benefits of gender diversity within higher education administration. From the perspective of students, the presence of female mentors and role models is an important indicator of success for women undergraduates. From the perspective of the institutions, gender diversity at senior levels enhances the overall talent pool, increases the range of contributions to knowledge and practice, and leads to higher-quality decision making.
The purpose of this paper is to do a literature review of the most prominent biases impeding the advancement of women to leadership roles in higher education administration. Although women comprise nearly 50% of all administrative positions within higher education, gender disparities persist in appointments to administrative leadership roles, promotion and tenure rates, research acceptance rates, compensation, and other areas. Consequently, women are not ascending to senior leadership positions. Women occupy approximately 38% of provosts, 36% of academic deans, less than 30% of the top executive positions, and less than 20% of the seats on governing boards. This problem is important to address because of the significant potential benefits of gender diversity within higher education administration. From the perspective of students, the presence of female mentors and role models is an important indicator of success for women undergraduates. From the perspective of the institutions, gender diversity at senior levels enhances the overall talent pool, increases the range of contributions to knowledge and practice, and leads to higher-quality decision making. In order to remedy the leadership disparity and achieve greater gender equity, it is important to review and understand the underlying causes.
There are many factors that contribute to the gender disparities in leadership positions within higher education. Eagly and Carli (2007) describe women’s path to professional leadership as a labyrinth, full of twists and turns and obstacles that must be overcome. Schneider et al. (2011) differentiate between “pull” and “push” factors: “pull” factors are those that can pull women away from their work, such as the time demands of being a mother, while “push” factors are those that push women away and prevent them from achieving success, such as discriminatory work environments. This review focuses on the most prominent push factors that impede women’s advancement, which are organizational and individual gender biases. These biases contribute to and perpetuate significant gender disparities in senior leadership positions across higher education. Organizational gender biases stem from the gendered history and culture of higher education. Most academic institutions were founded and operated by men, and therefore their systems, policies and procedures were created based on traditional male practices and values. For instance, long hours and inflexible human resources practices are possible when the (male) employee is either unencumbered by children or has a spouse with primary parental responsibility. Because organizational operations were aligned with men’s life experiences, they create an uneven playing field that advantages men over women, who have a different life experience. Individual gender biases also affect women adversely. While overt discrimination has decreased dramatically in the last several decades, implicit biases continue to play a role in how women are perceived. A 2007 study exploring the slow advancement of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) concluded that implicit gender bias affects the perception of women’s abilities, noting as follows:on the average, people are less likely to hire a woman than a man with identical qualifications, are less likely to ascribe credit to a woman than to a man for identical accomplishments, and, when information is scarce, will far more often give the benefit of the doubt to a man than to a woman.
Similar findings have been demonstrated outside of STEM, including in gender-integrated jobs and even in fields traditionally considered more feminine such as nursing, social work and education. These implicit gender biases are believed to stem from gender stereotypes and schemas. Historical gender-based divisions of labor reflect assumptions about the different skills possessed by men and women and the type of work considered most appropriate for each gender. Because of these stereotypes, women may be considered incapable or unsuited for positions traditionally dominated by men simply because they do not fit the preconception of who belongs. This bias is most apparent in the context of leadership positions. Male agentic traits, such as independence, aggression and confidence, are traditionally associated with leadership. Conversely, women’s communal traits, such as compassion and sensitivity, do not fit traditional conceptions of leadership and can even be viewed as undesirable professional qualities. As a result, women may be considered less capable in leadership roles because it is assumed that they lack the agentic (stereotypically male) characteristics thought to be necessary for effective leadership. These biased perceptions of women and their skills, abilities, stereotypical characteristics can operate at all stages of women’s professional academic careers. For instance, among lower-level faculty members, women report being asked to perform lower-level tasks than their male counterparts in similar positions, and women believe they shoulder a greater service burden in the form of teaching, student contact, and other stereotypically feminine academic duties. As a result of this increased service burden, women have less time for research and other pursuits that are necessary to advance their careers.
Gender bias also operates at intermediate levels of academia. Gender-biased variations in the perceived value of men’s and women’s professional accomplishments (such as scholarship and teaching) can lead to gender-biased performance evaluations, which can disadvantage women by impairing their access to things like grants and research support. Such disadvantages in turn limit women’s opportunities for promotion in academic and administrative rank, which are critical stepping stones on the path to senior leadership positions. Finally, even after leadership roles have been attained, gender bias continues to negatively impact women. In a 2017 study of women college presidents, 12 of 13 participants reported experiences of gender bias at various points in their academic careers, in many cases after they had advanced into administrative roles and/or in the presidential selection process. These women experienced marginalization, lack of support, and exclusion from informal networks.
It is clear that implicit biases against women, both at a structural organizational level and on an individual interpersonal level, continue to impose a significant impediment to the advancement of women to leadership positions within higher education administration. Women can be impacted at all levels of their professional careers, even after they have achieved leadership positions. Even small differences in treatment at discrete points in their careers can add up and result in large disadvantages for women.
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