Too often invisible or unattainable?

Profiling women in HE leadership is critical to empower successors.

For women in higher education leadership, landing your dream role is anything but straight forward. It is often not planned, even accidental and happenstance at times – but it doesn’t come without significant determination and sacrifice.

Building the profile of women who have made the leap into the upper echelons of their university and telling the story of how they got there is critical if we are to continue to progress in nurturing the careers of women who will lead the sector in the future.

That women are taking on leadership roles in higher education in the USA and Australia is not new. The amount of women leading the charge in the USA’s top research universities has increased by 32 percent in less than two years.

However, what women seem to have in common when speaking to their leadership journeys is the idea that it began as a pipe dream, something only others attained.

This was affirmed in a series of interviews we recently conducted with 20 women in leadership roles at a research-intensive university in the USA. They came from diverse backgrounds, discipline interests and occupied different leadership roles from Director to Vice President.

We asked about their career trajectory journeys, future aspirations, and the key skills they believe women (and men) should cultivate as they develop their individual leadership careers.

Narrative and counter-narrative

Many women shared that they obtained their leadership roles through sheer determination, belief in the self, acquiring great mentors, and self-growth through the countless obstacles and challenges that occurred along the way.

The counter-narratives women leaders shared about their professional journeys illustrate a hard truth: juggling professional and personal lives has not gotten easier.

No two women’s leadership stories were the same. What is common is that they have missed vacations and family time to land their role. This has taken personal determination, bringing the authentic self to the table, and managing imposter syndrome when it raises its ugly head.

Anecdotally, these issues appear to be more prevalent for women in leadership roles in higher education than for men.

Leadership journey

The interviewees were positive about women in leadership, providing stories to be shared while highlighting the non-technical skills they believe were most important to a successful leadership journey, including research, education, and service.

The interviewees also commented on their leadership approaches being different to men. For instance, women have been found to excel in displaying high integrity and honesty in contrast to men in leadership (Zenger and Folkman, 2019 Harvard Business Review).

They said all women are leading in some way, learning about leadership through the highs and lows of their own journey, and about the kind of leader they do not want to become. This type of leadership can occur at all levels of the organisational hierarchy from early to mid-career journeys and via a variety of roles from leading major research projects to tutor groups.

They used the challenges and those difficult moments to ensure that they did not become a less than positive leader. Becoming an effective leader is not easy nor straightforward. Difficult leadership decisions need to be made and staff don’t always see this as positive or required if not undertaken with care.

Overall, the interviewees suggested that their values included protecting others, preventing colleagues from experiencing invisibility, isolation, voicelessness, and ensuring access to quality mentoring.

A new way of leading

The interviewees said quality mentoring is a critical element of progressive leadership models and that women are very good at this type of leadership approach, which can be termed ‘servant leadership’. This is because they often enjoy supporting others from behind the front lines or from the side.

Servant leaders is an approach that prioritizes serving others’ needs and fostering a supportive environment, but they also assert themselves when necessary. This type of leadership style is about leading from behind, guiding, and empowering others to shine (Scicluna Lehrke and Sowden, 2017). Rarely did any interviewee express that they lead up-front, and instead expressed how they were proud to be nurturing, self-reflective and a collaborator.

Sharing the stories of women in leadership really matter and need to be told. Our interviewees also felt that without their ‘truth’ then the full leadership picture would not be as clear as it could be.

Finally, interviewees offered key pointers to developing women in leadership in terms of the skills most needed:

  • Bring your best self and enjoy the journey.
  • If you focus too much on the title or end destination, you will not be happy.
  • Wellness and positive mental health are key to effective leadership.
  • Talk to other colleagues and find out about their leadership stories. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Adaptability, positive mindset, and humour were identified as key skills. Listen more, observe, and reflect on how you can bring your best self to the workplace. Work-life balance and juggling carers, parental needs or having a disability and/or menopause can be managed when advocators and supporters who include women and men come together to support one another.

We undertook this investigation because we were interested in finding out what made a woman in leadership tick. What were the underlying elements for a prosperous career as a leader in higher education, and what were the similarities and differences between our experience and observation of women in leadership in the USA and Australia.

Our interest in this area was also a key outcome of our involvement in the Asia Pacific Women in Leadership program in 2023.

We also share these stories about women in leadership because we hold roles in higher education where we are counted on by others, required to lead by example and recognise the significance of mentoring early to senior women working in higher education.

Not all women will be excellent leaders, desire to lead or even open to mentoring others. This is the same for men too. However, our interviewees intentionally acquired multiple women and men mentors, often informally, at various stages of their careers.

In fact, several women we interviewed said it was not until they stopped worrying about their careers, and instead enjoyed the journey, concentrating on relationship building while undertaking projects that they were passionate about, that they began to see themselves as authentic leaders who could inspire others unconditionally.

Rachael Hains-Wesson is associate professor in work-integrated learning at the University of Sydney Business School. Tracy Poon Tambascia is Veronica and David Hagen Chair in Women’s Leadership and a professor at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.



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