The gendering of leadership: understanding through the lens of sameness and difference?

By: Susan Henking, Ph.D.

President, Shimer College

Concerns about the gendering of leadership remain important for our nation and for higher education. What was previously labeled the glass ceiling is now understood as a labyrinth, true. The barriers to women’s leadership persist.

At the recent HERS Summit, the organization and its partners released research on women serving as presidents and chancellors and in other senior positions in higher education. The stories we told when we gathered revealed as much or more.

My experience at the Summit leads me well beyond data about barriers and disincentives for women to become college or university presidents or chancellors to identify some overarching quandaries that shape my life as president and, I suspect, all of our lives.

First, as we reflect on the challenges facing us – in which the majority of college students are female and the majority of college and university leaders are. . . . not, what is the role of higher education in sustaining –or dismantling – the status quo?

Second, what difference does it make when or if women lead?  Why do we believe it matters that women are under-represented in leadership positions within higher education, as continues to be the case? Do we believe that a shift in representation will be accompanied by a deeper set of changes?  Ought we?

Here a key is asking who “we” are.

Not all women are alike. Surprising, eh? And here, I do not speak merely of difference in sexual orientation or race.  Rather, I have in mind our disagreements about whether we, as women, bring a different form of leadership to the table or not. This disagreement reproduces theoretical disagreements about sameness and difference in research about gender. It reproduces, as well, challenges to the legitimacy of a focus on women, in the absence of any comparison to men. In many ways, I see these disagreements as irresolvable.

Instead of arguing with one another, I believe we must think through the lenses of sameness and difference as we think through leadership of our institutions. As we do so, our agreements are as powerful as our disagreements. We agree that having a range of women at the table changes the discussion.  Whether talking about our own experiences within a single institution or across higher education, we also know that that “one of anything” is far from enough. Recognizing the varieties of women’s leadership recognizes the varieties of leadership, period.

At a gathering such as the HERS Summit, it is important to note that presidencies and chancellorships are perceived as hugely difficult positions, requiring a public role and a demanding calendar that are nearly unimaginable.  Among the women in Denver were many whose depth of pain matched their depth of commitment to their institutions. Women presidents differ in our response to data that indicates that demands of the job dissuade women from presidencies. Some say “suck it up” or call the “complaining” a form of victimhood. Others see such descriptors as a call for more radical change. Let us not only “add women” to traditional forms of presidency, they say, but let us change what it means to be president or chancellor.

Emerging from all of this, of course, is the question of what a president or chancellor is, for the 21st century. Is it, one person asked in Denver, to be a public intellectual? Is it to be an advocate for change? Here, too, we will not reach agreement, in all likelihood. As we navigate the many constituencies of higher education – and of our own institutions, though, we risk too much if we seek a studied neutrality on all issues. We are and must be ethical leaders, engaged leaders, and committed intellectuals as presidents.  At what cost? At what cost if we refuse to do so?

These themes come together as we take up critical challenges of the 21st century. Here are four I carry with me:

  • Women leaders tend not to be followed by women leaders. All too often one is enough. To combat this: Succession planning as a woman friendly activity.
  • Rumor has it that more women leaders may mean that our sector is declining in importance or that higher education is at risk. Yes, as the prestige of clergy or school teachers declined, more women moved into such roles. We can accept that or we can transform its meaning.
  • Higher education must focus on the mix of matters at the heart of our difficulty – on sameness and difference among women and men and on individual and social change – rather than looking for solutions that merely reproduce the naïve version of an ahistorical American individualism.
  • Finally, I heard women – as I said – speak of pain and self-care. Let us all, all of us, move from “do what I say, not what I do” to living our own vision of leadership rooted in self-care.

When HERS was founded in 1972, I was in high school. Girl’s basketball, as it was called, was played quite differently than men’s – on half courts. Title IX was passed that June.

Quite obviously, change is not an end point. It is a constant struggle.  We have more work ahead to win the battle for gender equality.