Report: Female Presidents Juggle More, Earn Less
By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo
Women still have fewer opportunities to gain top leadership roles at the nation’s colleges and universities, their salaries lag behind those of men and they face greater personal and professional demands, according to a report that summarizes the observations and concerns of women college presidents.
“From Where We Sit: Women’s Perspectives on the Presidency,” a report by the American Council on Education, captures a series of 13 roundtable discussions held around the country in 1998 and 1999.
The project was intended to examine whether gender makes a difference in the success of college presidents. Participants discussed whether women are taking the right steps toward leadership positions, why their terms are generally shorter than their male counterparts, how they rebounded from bad leadership experiences and what their leadership styles were.
Women are more likely to rise to top posts in the nation’s community and technical colleges than at four-year colleges. At the time of the study there were nearly 150 women presidents at two-year institutions, by far the largest contingent in higher education. Fewer than 100 held the same post at baccalaureate institutions. Community college presidents also generally earn less money than their peers in four-year institutions.
The discussions generated detailed accounts of the day-to-day trials some women faced as presidents because of their gender. Some related their difficulties with “old-time” board members who were skeptical of a woman’s ability to lead, the challenges of maintaining an intensive professional schedule while juggling the demands of marriage and family, and the problems they met with subordinates who expected them to be kinder, gentler leaders.
“Women still have to worry about juggling more than men do,” says Dr. Martha T. Nesbitt, president of Gainesville College in Gainesville, Ga. Nesbitt participated in the ACE discussion in Atlanta.
For women presidents, even those things that might be considered irrelevant or insignificant to leadership ability for men are apt to become important factors in others’ perceptions of their effectiveness.
Participants spoke of their surprise at discovering that trustees preferred women candidates to be married, that community members, students and staff gauged them by their appearance, and that they were much more likely to be viewed as failures if their tenure ended prematurely. While many men seem to get hired again and again after being fired from previous posts, some participants said, many women have trouble getting another leadership position once they leave a post for any reason. And women tend to land the most difficult assignments.
“Leaders who can put things in perspective and show confidence in being able to make a comeback are the most likely to succeed,” the report says. “Far too often … a failure may leave a first-time woman president feeling incompetent or embarrassed, especially if she persevered in hopes of making things work and later internalized the failure.”
Many of the problems, participants said, stem from the women’s lack of experience at the top, or their enthusiasm for advancing to such a post at any cost.
“I think that’s because of the fact that we’re so glad to get the position that we’re not the tough negotiators we need to be,” says Nesbitt, who is president of the American Association of Women in Community Colleges, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.
The participants recommended that women undertake thoughtful evaluation and mapping of personal and professional goals, work diligently with staff who are supportive of the agenda, continue to hone leadership skills, seek mentors in the field, cultivate relationships with board members and encourage growth of faculty and staff.
“The challenge ahead for women in higher education,” says Dr. Claire Van Ummersen, vice president and director of the Office of Women in Higher Education at ACE, “is to develop strategies to help more women master the challenges necessary to reach leadership positions.”
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