Monday, January 6, 2014

Gender Equity and Leadership: The Need for Further Conversations

Pauline Sampson
Associate Professor
Stephen F. Austin State University

            The conversation on gender equity in leadership positions is still needed.  A recent news report on December 11, 2013 on the ABC news gave information that women still experience bias in hiring (ABC news, 2013).  According to this report women perceive that they have not received jobs because of their gender.  The report then described a hiring experiment conducted at Yale University on interviews with a man and woman actors answering exactly the same way.  Observers of the interviews were asked to determine who they would hire and evaluate the interviewees.  The majority chose the man to hire and stated they found the woman more aggressive, less likable, and less likely to get the job.

            The conversations on equity are an important topic for educational leadership preparation programs as we guide and instruct future leaders of schools and organizations. Educational leadership programs are complex groups within the larger complex organization of the colleges and universities.  As professors of other leaders, it is important to stay in touch with the current needs and trends in the schools.  Professors also lead the research and conversations on changes and equity issues in education.  Gender equity continues to need research.  As I examine the steady, but slow growth of more women leading our schools as superintendents, I realized that there also has been slow growth in women as leaders of our colleges and universities.  The discussion is still needed on why women may not be choosing a career as the presidents of colleges and universities.  Or why women are not proceeding faster into these high profile positions of superintendents and university presidents.

            As I explored gender equity in the high profile positions, I examined my own state of Texas.  Texas was slightly worse than the nation for gender equity at public universities’ highest position. Twenty nine public universities in Texas showed that seven were led by females (24%) and 22 were led by males (76%).  The majority of the presidents of the Texas universities were white males, which is consistent with the nation.  Two of the seven universities with women presidents in Texas have women that are retiring this year. National figures for college and university presidents show that most are led by white males (ACENET, 2012).  ACENET also found that there has been growth in women holding the highest leadership position from 23% in 2006 to 26% in 2011.  But that means that there are still 74% of the universities led by males.

            As we explore women in leadership, it may help to look back to women’s experiences at the undergraduate leadership opportunities to gain some insight into future women’s leadership aspirations. One research report that  looked at the early leadership of women in undergraduate was conducted at Princeton University (Princeton, 2011). Princeton studied leaders of different groups within universities and found fewer were led by females. Further, this study asked the question, whether women were choosing less high profile positions at the university?  They suggested that men were quicker to speak up while women reflected longer prior to answering or speaking out.  Perhaps the men were then seen as choosing to want the leadership more.

            This Princeton report suggested that there continues to be a need to talk openly about gender and leadership.  As I talk with others about gender issues and leadership, I hear a wide variety of stances.  Some feel there is no longer a need to discuss equity as women have access to all positions. Others state the support of networking and how differently either gender approaches the networking for advancements.  Some say that women are underselling themselves (Princeton University, 2011, p. 7).  Additionally, when women do aspire and reach to prominent leadership positions whether in school districts or universities, then stereotypes may need to be further examined carefully.  

            A reason that people might not select the president or superintendent as a career path is because of the increasing demands of the high profile jobs. Men and women to not choose the high stress jobs with demands for higher student performance with less resources, or demands to find additional resources (Zagier, 2013). Previous research on women in leadership roles examined women leaders as being successful because they held certain attributes such as risk takers with strong ambitions to succeed and abstract reasoning skills (Laff, 2007).  Other researchers identified the discrimination practices in the workplace that caused fewer women to succeed (Duehr & Bono, 2006; Eagly & Carli, 2007).

            Looking toward the administration at colleges and universities, there are many reasons why women may not be choosing or obtaining the president position. There has been some suggestions that there needs to be more role models in the field for other women so they will choose to apply for the lead positions in school districts and universities. Additionally, women may not network as well or position themselves in positions that lead to the presidency.  Some people have suggested that women have to balance work and family more. 

            One blog from a New York Times’ article shows different reactions to gender bias in leadership.  A blog from the New York Times’ article, “Gender Bias: Elite women put new spin on old debate” showed a wide variety of responses. An article by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former State Department Executive, stated that the workplace needs to change if women are to have families and also find success as executives (Slaughter, 2012).  Conversely, Sheryl Sandberg, a Facebook executive, advocated that women can have families and also be successful in executive positions with no change to the workplace but rather they need to be aware of how women are viewed in striving for leadership positions (Sandberg, 2013). The dialogue between bloggers showed one common theme of the difficult balance between careers and family. The attention on women executive is still shifting for how to balance family life with work and how this affects women school executives as well as barriers for women obtaining leadership positions. Further, the blog had a high response rate of women sharing their own experiences on work and its effect on their families with a sense that many women are not in executive roles in the work place because they choose not to be in the highest leadership roles or they are just surviving the demands of work and family. One blog response stated,

Putting in insane hours at work does not always equal being at the very top one percent of one’s profession. Lots of moms (and dads) have to work overtime, or even take more than one job just to make ends meet. Just because you are working … doesn’t mean you are reaping commensurate financial rewards or enjoying a measure of respect.  I guess I’m saying I don’t think the average person who reads the .. and comments on this article  really knows what a typical job is anymore. Things are tough out there and this entire conversation, while important, almost completely sidesteps the concerns of the majority of women with children.  I don’t know what the answer is.

        Another issue related to gender is the different issues that arise based on being a woman. A minority women president suggests that women leaders must deal with different issues than their male colleagues. Knight (2011) shared that only 4% of all college and university presidents are women of color.  She further shared that women who aspire to leadership positions often have to decide on how to position themselves with aspects of their physical attire and looks as well as finding supportive mentors while staying true to their own style and individuality. 

            There may be many reasons for fewer women in the highest level of leadership of school districts and universities.  But the conversation needs to continue if we want to be prepared for a retiring work force that has a majority of white males leading universities and school districts. Additionally, the conversations and research are important for a better understanding of the work place and leadership as it relates to gender.


ABC News (December 11, 2013). Women experience surprising bias in the workplace.  Retrieved from

ACENET (2012). Leading demographic portrait reveals ongoing challenges in diversity, aging. American Council on Education, March, 12, 2012. Retrieved from

Duehr, E. E., & Bono, J. E. (2006). Men, women, and managers: are stereotypes finally changing?. Personnel Psychology, 59(4), 815-846.

Eagly, A. H., & Carli, L. L. (2007). Women and the labyrinth of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 85(9), 62.

Knight, H. J. (2011). From where I sit: Race, gender, and the college presidency. Association of American Colleges and Universities, 40(1). Retrieved from

Laff, M. (2007). The invisible wall. T+D, 61(3), 32–38.

Princeton University (March, 2011). Report of the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership.  Retrieved from

Sandberg, S. (April, 2013). Sheryl Sandberg, “Lean in” author: When a woman is competent, she doesn’t seem nice enough.  Huffington Post, April 23, 2013. Retrieved from

Slaughter, A. M. (July/August, 2012).  Why women still can’t have it all.  The Atlantic.

Zagier, A. S. (2013). College presidents escape leadership pressures by moving to smaller schools.  The Huffington Post, November 3, 2013.  Retrieved from

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