Earlier this month, I read A Leadership Guide for Women in Higher Education, written by Marjorie Hass and just published last year. I read it quickly. It was under 150 pages, and it was great. I just wish that it had been written years earlier. It would have been really nice to have had it as a resource when I stepped into my first leadership role in 2006.
Starting with today’s post, I am going to write a few blog posts related to the topics she covers in the book. First, a little about Marjorie Hass. She has served as president at two colleges as well as provost at another. Before she moved into administration, she was a professor of philosophy. She is now president at the Council of Independent Colleges and is the first woman to lead the association since it was started in 1956.
Hass’s book is organized with the following general topics: professional identity, power and conflict, joy in the work, being a leader, vision, skills, and getting the job. See? Good stuff in here.
She opens by situating what it means to lead as a woman. One of the first questions she raises is one that resonates with so many of us—what impact will this new position have on my family?
This question leads to a series of others: Will we need to move? Will it disrupt childcare and/or schooling for my children? Will my partner be able to get a job in our new location? Will I become the primary breadwinner, and, if I do, how will this change the dynamics in my family? How will this impact which parent does drop-off and pickup? After-school and weekend activities? Playdates?
When I took the position of associate provost and dean at Salem State University, an institution north of Boston with a 90-minute commute each way, I almost didn’t take the position because I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how I would coordinate taking responsibility for either drop-off or pickup for our then 8-year-old. I finally realized that I would be doing neither of the two and that my husband would be doing both. Four years later, I was at Wheelock College in Boston, back in the city and able to be there both before school and after school. Of course, by then our son was 12 and in the seventh grade. In his mind, I had never been available before or after school. He had very few memories of the hours I had logged doing drop-off and pickup from ages 1 to 8 or even my weekly volunteer stints in his K-1 and K-2 classrooms—let’s just call this the recency effect.
Hass also writes about how, as a woman, she realized that her achievement was about more than just herself. For many, she has been a role model and a symbol of what is possible. This is an honor, a privilege and a heavy responsibility to bear. Every word you say, every dress you wear, every move you make is used as a way to make generalizations about all women. The same level of scrutiny exists for leaders who are members of BIPOC communities. You rarely, if ever, just get to be yourself.
With the work of being a symbol comes a sense of responsibility and urgency to make change happen whenever and wherever possible and to remove the barriers of sexism, racism and heterosexism. For many this means making your leadership an “act of resistance.”
In my coaching work with women in higher ed, this is a recurring theme. We often discuss strategies for using our positional authority, leadership, power and influence to change policies and practices, to remove structural barriers, to leave things better than they were when we found them. Rather than a focus on individual success, the emphasis seems to be on finding ways to lift as they climb.
This is the work, and for those who want to center justice and make our institutions more equitable, leadership roles are crucial spaces for change.
In doing that work, it is important to assemble your team of support partners—mentors, advisers and sponsors. As an alum of the HERS program—Wellesley 2009—and a current member of the Women’s Network Executive Committee at the American Council on Education, I feel incredibly grateful to have so many amazing women leaders on my team.
The need for a team is one of the main reasons we created “University of Venus” in 2010—to be a space for women in higher ed, to be a virtual community and network, to share our stories, celebrate our wins and commiserate over our losses.
Who’s on your team?
Mary Churchill is the former chief of policy and planning for Mayor Kim Janey in the city of Boston and current associate dean for strategic initiatives and community engagement at Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis and an ICF certified leadership coach.