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Promoting Women in Higher Education: Sponsors, Mentors and Visible Leaders
Q&A with Dr. Gretchen M. Bataille and Dr. Barbara Kaufman
Q&A by Carol Caley, MFA

Qualified female administrators in higher education roles need more than programs and policies to support their rise into positions of leadership. They also need active support from mentors, sponsors and visible spokespersons. Women who aspire to lead should prepare themselves for their next role, and smart institutional leaders will help them do just that. In this article, Barbara Kaufman, Ph.D. and Dr. Gretchen M. Bataille lay out how senior leaders can strengthen their teams and achieve their institutional goals by advocating for women to step up and lead.

Promoting women isn’t just about moving women who are already in higher education roles through the system. It is about active engagement to ensure that programs and policies are in place that will assist women who wish to step up to leadership roles. Presidents and other leaders need to see themselves as sponsors, mentors and visible spokespersons for women. Academic leaders need to show that they visibly support women’s progress in higher education.  At the same time, women leaders also need to be proactive in preparing themselves for roles of great leadership responsibility. 

Q: Much has been written about how great advice from a mentor can enhance a woman’s workplace advancement. What relationships should women seek that can help them move up?

Bataille: In her book (Forget a Mentor) Find a Sponsor, Sylvia Ann Hewlett addresses the importance of an active and engaged sponsor, who is an advocate with the power to open doors. Sponsors take action and help women get ahead and aren’t just there to listen.  An active sponsor relationship can make a bigger difference than the more passive mentor role. A mentor can counsel; a sponsor is someone who will give your name to the right people.

Kaufman: Research has shown that women often don’t think they are ready for leadership positions—even if they are, objectively. If she’s the first woman to be appointed to a position, she might question how she got there and whether or not she has what it takes to succeed.  Having done the “homework” with a sponsor or mentor, she will have more confidence in her capacity to do the job.

Q: Why do women hold back, think they’re not ready, or fear they might not succeed?

Kaufman: I’ve engaged with many women leaders over 30 years of coaching. I’ve often heard from women what I call the “I am not enough” syndrome. They underestimate their talents and readiness. Men are more likely to believe in themselves. They have confidence that they achieved their high status through their own skills and abilities. Women worry that they don’t have enough experience, don’t have the right degree or haven’t spent enough time in their last role. They feel that they might not qualify because they lack expertise in an area, such as fundraising, that will be needed in a new role.  

Bataille: Women often believe they have to know everything, or have accomplished everything before they go for the next role. They have bought into the unconscious bias that institutions often harbor: that men are inherently more qualified for leadership positions. Here’s an example: Linda Hudson, former CEO of security and defense company BAE Systems, recently told the authors of The Confidence Code in an article in the Business Insider titled 13 Subtle Ways Women Are Treated Differently At Work: “I think the environment is such that even in the position I am now, everyone’s first impression is that I’m not qualified to do the job. When a man walks into a room, they’re assumed to be competent until they prove otherwise.”

Q: What has the rate of progress been in recruiting women leaders for top higher education roles? 

Bataille: The 2011-2012 ACE survey of American College presidents reports that women represent just 33% of the leaders of associate institutions, 23% of baccalaureate, 23% of masters, and 22% of doctorate-granting institutions. Progress has been slow. These numbers reflect that many of us, when we hear the word “president,” still see a picture of a white male with gray hair. Women internalize this image. The next five-year study will be released soon, and it will be interesting to see if there has been more momentum for women leaders.

Kaufman: Campuses and systems can do a lot to change these images and realities. Some universities have established internal programs for professional development of all faculty and staff and should consider instituting women’s development programs. California and Texas have statewide women’s leadership programs. Many states and cities offer leadership programs as well. Presidents and other academic leaders can recognize and reward high-performing women with a seat in a prestigious development program such as Leadership California, or nominate them for participation in a program offered by Harvard, AASCU, HERS and ACE.

Q: In what other ways can higher education executives support their high-achieving women who seek leadership roles?

Bataille: Some campuses have established programs that invite faculty and staff to “shadow” administrators. Such opportunities mirror national programs such as the ACE Fellows Program, where participants spend a full year, a semester or periodic visits to another institution.  Other institutions are open to offering executive coaches as a professional development opportunity for aspiring women leaders.

Kaufman: Focus groups on campuses or as a part of national meetings that incorporate women’s networking sessions can be used to help tease out what obstacles prevent women from applying for administrative positions. Promoting and implementing flexible work schedules can prompt more women to apply for positions of higher responsibility.

Q: Administrators are frequently queried by search consultants asking for nominations for leadership positions. How should academic leaders handle those inquiries? 

Kaufman: Understandably, some administrators are reluctant to nominate a person who is doing a great job for them. But this is short-sighted. It doesn’t serve either the institution or the potential leader very well. The bottom line is that supervisors in higher education should ask employees what their long-term leadership goals are. This should take place not only during annual evaluations but also as part of giving feedback on a regular basis. Assuming the employee has a solid track record of success, once an administrator knows that an employee aspires to a higher position, the administrator should actively assist with the nominations process.

Bataille: This is part of what a good sponsor does. I encourage supervisors to sponsor employees by recommending them for new opportunities and preparing them for new positions by giving them varied on-the-job experiences. It is also important to give constructive criticism if the individual has skill areas that are underdeveloped. 

Q: What kind of on-the-job experiences would set them up for their next role?

Kaufman: There are ways to prepare women who want to move forward. For example, a woman could be given an opportunity to present to the campus or system board. This experience would offer her a view into board behavior and governance models and provide valuable experience if she were then to apply for a high-ranking administrative post or campus presidency. Another example: It’s common knowledge that presidents and provosts—even deans and chairs—need to be engaged in fundraising. Providing opportunities for women to participate in fundraising activities is a way to introduce them to this role.

Bataille: Inviting, say, a woman scientist to join a lunch with a donor interested in the sciences is a way for her to begin to understand the relationship between donor funding and the work of the faculty. Similarly, staff in student affairs can accompany a fundraiser to visit a foundation interested in supporting student scholarships. Inviting the faculty senate chair or executive committee to a legislative hearing is a way to introduce faculty leadership to the political process critical to higher education in the public arena.

Q: What can administrative departments do to actively promote women’s recruitment?

Bataille: Potential candidates for a campus position can learn just about everything about the history, reputation and culture of a campus in short order by simply Googling. They can easily learn about support for women as well as challenges women have faced on campus. So the public relations department needs to ensure that positive stories make the news—promotions of women into leadership positions, new programs, campus speakers and events on campus that highlight women’s issues. Candidates for jobs will contact friends to pick up chatter on campus working conditions. If the news is bleak, it will be more difficult to recruit interested candidates. Smart institutional leaders know that it’s a plus to visibly support women leaders.

Q: Search committees are always looking for a “good fit” with their institutional values. What else should they be looking for in candidates? 

Kaufman: When recruiting women for positions, search committees need to focus not only on the most pressing institutional needs and goals. They need to think carefully about the leadership style of a candidate. They also need to consider how they implement the institution’s policies regarding family issues and how those policies affect the selection of women candidates versus their male counterparts.

Q: In what way?

Bataille: Search committees often make assumptions about women who apply for leadership positions that they don’t about male applicants. Family obligations can become part of the selection picture, in spite of policies to the contrary. Most universities have policies to give equal weight to parents, for example. If you’re a new mother, you’re entitled to maternity leave. If you’re a new father, you’re entitled to paternity leave. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg took paternity leave in a highly visible way. But the reality is that fewer men take that leave, or take a shorter leave, making a man a more favored candidate in practice, though not according to hiring policy.

Kaufman: The ACE study backs this up, with results showing that women presidents in higher education are more likely than men to be single and have no children. In fact, 72% of women presidents are married compared to 90% of male presidents. Search committees need to demonstrate their support for family life based on institutional policies and practices and apply them equally to all candidates.

Q: So that a leader can “hit the ground running” and find her footing immediately, is it better to promote women leaders from within the institution, or hire through an executive search process?

Kaufman: Either way, deliberate on-boarding programs are a critical success factor so that a newly appointed leader has support in assessing issues like the team she’s inherited, key constituent groups, potential political and cultural landmines and an overall snapshot of the new campus. This applies whether she’s new to the campus or simply new to the role. Without this process, a newly appointed leader is likely to simply roll her past success strategies forward without a full assessment of what is different about her new boss and unwritten norms for integration into the institutional culture.    

Q: What role can search consultants play in connecting prospects to their next leadership role?

Bataille: Administrators mentoring or sponsoring women who aspire to higher positions should introduce them to search consultants. Only a quarter of women have talked to search consultants to prepare for a leadership position, but 51% of men interested in higher positions have done so. Search consultants can provide a realistic assessment of a potential candidate’s strengths and suggest what is needed to be competitive.

Q: What else can women do to make themselves more competitive as they reach for leadership roles?

Bataille: They need to recognize their own talent, and not be afraid to call on the help of their mentors and sponsors, as they actively work on pursuing their next role. There are an incredible number of talented women in the pipeline for leadership positions in higher education; however, many of these women seem to get stuck. The image is vivid—they need a push to emerge with a confident mindset that will enable them to showcase their experience, strengths and leadership style. This is the fast track towards inspiring search committees and boards to view them as viable leaders and the best candidates for the institution’s needs going forward.
About the Authors
Dr. Barbara Kaufman, President of ROI Consulting Group, Inc., has worked for over 30  (in the article you say 30 years) years as an executive, educator and executive coach to help individuals and teams increase their leadership effectiveness and organizational capacity. As a trusted advisor to leaders in higher education and the non-profit sector, Dr. Kaufman combines executive experience with researched-based, pragmatic guidance in the area of leadership effectiveness. Areas of expertise include: leadership effectiveness at the individual and team levels, executive coaching, high performing teams, performance assessment for senior administrators, executive on-boarding, shared governance, succession planning, board development and related topics.

Dr. Gretchen M. Bataille’s long career in higher education has included a variety of positions from department chair to university president and as senior vice president for the American Council on Education, the preeminent membership association for over 1,800 colleges and universities. She has taught, mentored, managed over $15 M in grants and has consulted in higher education both in the United States and abroad. Before becoming president of the University of North Texas, a research university with over 36,000 students, Dr. Bataille served as an administrator at Arizona State University, University of California-Santa Barbara, Washington State University and the University of North Carolina system. She was a faculty member at Iowa State University for nearly 20 years, served as interim chancellor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and consulted at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

Carol Caley, MFA, is a storyteller, thought leader, editor, graphic designer and is the marketing communications director of Leadership California. She spends her time thinking, writing and talking about women’s leadership, brands and why we love them, social and all kinds of media, education, and technology. She frequently interviews influential leaders and writes and publishes articles on women’s leadership.

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