9 female presidents: Here’s the biggest challenge I’ve faced

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9 female presidents: Here’s the biggest challenge I’ve faced

Women represent just 30% of U.S. college presidents, according to a 2016 report from the American Council on Education. And when you look at the number of women of color who lead institutions, that number shrinks down to 5%.


of U.S. college presidents are women. And only 5% are women of color.
of U.S. college presidents are women. And only 5% are women of color.

That gender gap is especially striking, given the composition of students on campus: Women currently represent more than half of students at degree-granting institutions.

The Chronicle of Higher Education asked nine current and former college presidents about the biggest challenges they have faced as a female leader.

Many of the presidents shared their stories of confronting bias, stereotypes, and double standards. They also recommended ways higher ed leaders can cultivate more inclusive environments and increase diversity among their leadership teams.

Mariko Silver, president emerita of Bennington College:

Women leaders are often expected to be “both personable and authoritative, both analytic and affable, both warm… and clearly commanding,” says Silver. These conflicting expectations can lead people to evaluate female leaders based on their personal traits rather than the quality of their work, she argues.

Higher ed leaders can counter stereotypes by cultivating an environment where people are judged on the merits of their work, not their gender, race, or class, says Silver. “When women leaders resist the pressure to acquiesce to such cultural expectations, we grant permission to our colleagues (and students) to forge a path that is defined by their abilities.”

“When women leaders resist the pressure to acquiesce to such cultural expectations, we grant permission to our colleagues (and students) to forge a path that is defined by their abilities.”

Mariko Silver, President Emerita of Bennington College

Elaine Maimon, president of Governors State University:

“Fighting stereotypes has been a major challenge in my leadership career,” says Maimon. As a woman, Maimon has faced criticism for not looking or sounding like a traditional president. And as a female English professor, she had to field questions about her business acumen and ability to run a university.

Judy Sakaki, president of Sonoma State University:

Women presidents of color face challenges to their leadership that may not be obvious to others, says Sakaki. She points to racist and sexist statements she’s received from her peers as a leader. “Since my appointment as president, I have been called many things, including a ‘genetically inferior weed.'”

To challenge these attitudes, higher ed leaders must appoint diverse search committees, host implicit bias training, and elevate diverse voices around leadership tables, argues Sakaki. “Most of all, we need to support, advocate for, and speak up if we witness biased treatment toward a colleague.”

Elizabeth Meade, president of Cedar Crest College:

“The biggest challenge I face as a woman college president is needing to wrench open doors that might open automatically for my male counterparts,” says Meade. It can be especially difficult to advocate for her university in local and regional communities where a “proverbial boys’ club” excludes women from business conversations, she adds.

“I have to consciously interject myself into their conversations at public events, and find ways to get time with them one-on-one to achieve what the male presidents in my area can usually achieve with less effort,” she explains.

Roslyn Artis, president of Benedict College:

One of the biggest challenges female presidents face is demonstrating their competence and winning support from the campus and community, says Artis. “Women often have to prove themselves in multiple ways before the scrutiny subsides,” she says. For example, women are often seen as less capable at managing athletics, facility construction, and finances, she adds.

“Women often have to prove themselves in multiple ways before the scrutiny subsides.”

Roslyn Artis, President of Benedict College

And while few college presidents have in-depth experiences in every aspect of university leadership, “women are often held to an impossible standard of being experienced in every area,” she argues. And any perceived deficits women have are “used as examples of our inability to lead effectively.”

Susan Herbst, president emerita of the University of Connecticut:

Female leaders often run into a double standard about how they can lead, says Herbst. For example, when male leaders are aggressive, they’re praised for being strong. But when women exhibit the same quality, they’re criticized, she says.

Campus leaders can challenge sexist stereotypes by actively seeking women for top jobs, recommends Herbst. Women leaders can set the tone for a university and demonstrate “what strong, imaginative women leaders can do once they have power and authority,” she argues.

Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington:

As a woman, a Latina, an immigrant, a Lesbian, and a long-serving faculty member, Cauce points out that she’s not the typical college president. Each of her identities has, at times, presented challenges to her success and her path to the presidency.

But we can increase diversity among higher ed leaders by re-imagining what leadership qualities men and women can and can’t have, she argues. Male leaders are often labeled charismatic while women are described as hard-working. But there’s no reason a woman can’t succeed based on her magnetism, or a man can’t succeed for his perseverance, she argues.

Janet Dudley-Eshbach, president emerita of Salisbury University:

Dudley-Eshbach says her gender helped propel her to the presidency. Many of the administrators, search committees, and board members she encountered understood the importance of gender equity in hiring and promotion, she explains.

But she still wrestled with stereotypes about how a woman president should act.

For example, her vocal advocacy for her university was sometimes seen as “irritating outspokenness” rather than strength of character, she says. And while a male president can be more aloof and unavailable, a woman president can be “seen as uncaring or harsh” when she doesn’t personally handle every complaint or concern, she adds. 

Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran, president emerita of Kalamazoo College:

As a college president, Wilson-Oyelaran’s biggest challenges were the declining enrollments from the 2008 financial crisis and building a welcoming campus community to accommodate changing student demographics.

Although her challenges had nothing to do with being a female leader, she says her response to each challenge was shaped by her experiences as a woman of color.

Sources: Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/30/18; Anderson, Washington Post, 3/26/14; ACE study, accessed 4/30/19

Read more about women in leadership positions

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