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Tips from Women for Women Seeking Leadership Positions in Higher Education

Episode 59

June 8, 2021 32 minutes


Wisr co-founder and CEO Kate Volzer is joined by Dr. Angela Clark-Taylor, Director of the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women at Case Western Reserve University. The two talk about their chance meeting in 2019 and the work they’ve done together since to support and empower women working in higher ed.

Dr. Clark-Taylor shares actionable advice derived from her research on gender equity. Both offer insights they’ve collected through their work leading professional development conferences and webinars designed to help women push through career barriers and pull other women up along the way.



0:00:10.0 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, Kate Volzer, the co-founder and former CEO of student engagement technology company Wisr, now part of EAB, is joined on the podcast by her friend and colleague, Dr. Angela Clark-Taylor, who is Director of the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women at Case Western Reserve University. The two share actionable advice, as well as lessons learned from their own career journeys to empower other women looking to break through the glass ceiling in higher education. Thank you for listening, and enjoy.


0:00:50.6 Kate Volzer: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Kate Volzer. I’m the CEO and co-founder of Wisr, which is now a part of EAB. Today, we’re here to talk about pushing through career obstacles in higher education, with a focus on women. I’m so excited to be here today, joined with my friend and colleague, Dr. Angela Clark-Taylor, who is better known by her students as Dr. ACT. She is the head of the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women at Case Western Reserve, and her and I are going to have a dialogue today about issues impacting women in higher education. Dr. ACT, can you introduce yourself for the listeners?

0:01:36.1 Angela Clark-Taylor: Absolutely, thank you. Like you said, Kate, I’m the Director of the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women at Case Western Reserve University. I’m just finishing up about my two years there, but I have about 15 years-plus work on women in higher education. And I was so excited to join the Flora Stone Mather Center, particularly because of its mission around being a community space and social innovator, doing research-informed action around women and gender equity in higher education. I really think… What this really means for the Mather Center is more that we understand that systems like higher education were not set up for women to thrive, and we realized that women don’t have to face those obstacles alone, that we can remove barriers better together. And so, part of that, with my particular work as director, is also running the WELL, or the Women’s Educational Learning Lab, where I do research particularly focusing on women staff leadership in higher education. Some of the largest groups of workers in higher education are women, and particularly in under-researched administrator fields like enrollment management, admissions, administrative work, tech; things outside of that student affairs, traditional faculty things we think about higher education, and so… That’s a little bit about me, but how about, I love when we tell people how we met. Maybe you wanna tell people how we got involved together, yeah?

0:03:00.0 KV: Oh yeah, our meet cute. Wow. So… Boy, what year was it? Was it 2019?

0:03:06.5 AC: Yeah, pre-pandemic.

0:03:07.3 KV: Yeah, 2019, okay. So, I had… Let’s see, we were coming off of, I think, a full year of doing these events, which we at Wisr branded HIGHER, but the whole idea was to help women in higher education support each other and push through barriers and obstacles they were facing, and… You were one of our attendees, and you approached me… Well, I think at the beginning of the day, but… I think we hit it off pretty fast friends, because now, every time I have my favorite coffee, I think of you and our time spent in the coffee shop pontificating about solving the world’s problems.

0:03:50.8 AC: 100%, or as we say nowadays, facts. Yeah, so I had just arrived, I feel like, on the Cleveland scene, and everyone was telling me I had to go to this conference called HIGHER for ambitious women in higher education. And I have to be honest, I was put on by a corporation? I was like, “Okay!” And so, I sorta went very skeptical, and by the end of the first half of the day, you’re right, I was like, “Hey, how do I host one of these immediately at Case Western Reserve?” And so, I feel like I’ve kinda become a zealot for HIGHER.

0:04:23.8 KV: Well, you’re… I love it. You’re a very lovable zealot. [chuckle] And I’m so happy that we’re now… I would call you a thought partner on this, and a real… I love talking to you, because you’re always innovating and ready to roll up your sleeves and do things that actually help, and that was sort of the intention of HIGHER. And yes, it… I mean, Wisr obviously is a corporation, but… I mean, the event got started because… Our product, when we sell it… Generally, it’s women that evaluate our software, but when it came time for a final budget approval, it ended up… Being a man that would have the final sign off, which is totally fine. I have wonderful male mentors in my life, but… I think one of the things that I most appreciate about you is our conversations about… While my experience is sort of ad hoc things that I have in the field, I feel like I’m always learning when you and I get together, because this is what you do, right? And all of your research is so tied to this HIGHER… Mission, and… But also, advancing women is so exciting, so…

0:05:35.7 AC: Well, thanks, that’s so kind of you. I absolutely feel as if you are a thought partner as well. I think one of the things that you fail to mention often, that was definitely a impetus for HIGHER, is that, not only are you a college graduate yourself, but you worked in higher ed for a while, and your customers, right? Mainly… If we think about the fact that more women are running some of these offices in higher education that have these touchpoints with students and their families and alumna, from enrollment all the way through, it just made sense to target them as a group to develop. And honestly, I feel like you gave women a ground-up advantage to getting in on what Wisr was doing for higher education before folks even knew it, and so… I dunno, I think that that’s a really cool aspect of the conference, that women were getting developed, but they were also kind of learning what was going on… Newly, from the sort of like… Tech side. I dunno if that makes sense.

0:06:39.8 KV: I think… Yeah, maybe I was just really… I tend to forget… I don’t forget about the early part of my career, I guess, in higher ed, but I think I was just so naïve. My parents didn’t go to college; I didn’t know how to work in a corporate space. So I wasn’t necessarily aware of… Maybe challenges I was facing in the workplace early on in my career. But I know… I mean, you’re the expert in a lot of areas on this, so could you kind of talk about the areas of your research, so… We met at HIGHER, got to know each other over coffee, we both love coffee, but more importantly, now this thing that started out as just kind of a gathering space is now translating into more research, and your research with the Flora Stone Mather Center is having real impacts on our industry, so can you talk about what you’re focused on?

0:07:32.0 AC: Absolutely. I think one of the things that’s really great when I first think about one of the things that we study… And then I have studies about how universities and communities engaged with each other, and so, this idea of bringing women together across institutions and across silos and divisions of institutions, I think, is really powerful for two particular reasons. One of the things that our research is finding is that women who are sort of siloed into these different mini-ecosystems on their campuses face some interesting dynamics, not only that are gendered by the structure of the institution, but the way that women themselves reproduce some of those inequities. And so, one of the first examples is bullying. And… I think sometimes, we shy away from that word, but bullying is different than harassment, right? It’s intimately related to micro-aggressions, but what it’s really about is sort of the ways that folks use information about each other and gendered ways of knowing and operating to try and convince other women to sort of move towards their will by using maybe personal information, fears they might have, other social dynamics to do that. And that happens both ways. Honestly, there’s a lot of upward bullying; staff onto their supervisors who are women. We say we want women to be leaders in higher education, but often, when women rise up into leadership roles, women that work for them and with them are more critical of them.

0:09:12.5 AC: And so, we were seeing some of these things in our research and our training programs, and… Honestly found it very validating when recently, a 2021 study came out from the Workplace Bullying Institute that really gave a broader statistic about women in the workplace that was… Allowed us to situate higher ed in this larger workplace context, and that was that even though men, predominantly, are still bullies in the workplace over women, dominating the workplace still, when women are the bullies, they pick other women to bully 65% of the time. And… Right? And it just really, I think, signaled, I think to us, that some of this work around bringing women together and supporting each other is so important.

0:10:03.8 KV: Yeah, and the upward bullying thing, I actually heard an example of this that just threw me, I think, earlier this week, but… A new vice president, I will leave out the title area, was called a Barbie [chuckle] by somebody that was more junior… Because she dressed up, I guess when showing to meetings, but what was kind of the positive of the story is, she wasn’t in the room when she was being called a Barbie, and it was in a derogatory way. But her male colleague stopped and said, “Well, what did you mean by that?”, and asked the person to clarify, the other woman to clarify, and then… Kind of… I think the situation was… Subdued from then on, and it was a more positive outcome, but… Being an ally and defending people, or stepping up and seeking clarification seems to be a good solution in that, but I just… I don’t understand why somebody… Like, why? [chuckle] I’m like, “What is going on?”

0:11:15.5 AC: Right, right. I have worked across all institution types, from community colleges, to small colleges, to large publics and research ones and institutions, and I will say that no institution is exempt, right? And regardless of how good their culture may be… From what’s going on in a larger society, so immediately, when you say “What’s going on?”, I think… We think that women who suffer gender inequity are sometimes exempt from exhibiting those same behaviors to each other, but we’ve been socialized to sort of interact interpersonally this way. And second, I also think… There… We create this idea of scarcity, that there’s not enough room for women at all levels, and so, we think we’re fighting for a couple spaces, and then, don’t get me wrong. Supervisors can absolutely bully subordinates, and it could be going on… At the same time all around us, but I really do feel like it is a symptom of living in a gender-inequitable society. And that’s scarcity, right? And so, we’ve been trying to figure out what really sort of helps folks move forward, and it is building community, it is social-emotional intelligence… But it’s also sort of identifying that some of the problems are structural and not individual, and don’t have individual solutions only. We can’t just stop microaggressions one person at a time, learning how to be more equitable and more socially and emotionally intelligent; we have to think of the structural level as well.

0:13:03.1 KV: Well, but how much does… Individual support matter? I’m thinking like, there’s this… [chuckle] Surely, you’ve seen the movie Bridesmaids, right? There’s this line where Ellie Kemper… It cracks me up every time, when she’s like, “You’re more beautiful than Cinderella. You smell like pine needles and have a face like sunshine.” It’s the funniest line ever, but really, what she’s doing is, her friend is really going to a negative place and… Feeling really bad about her life situation, and so, she takes that moment to build her friend up. Is that the kind of thing that can be helpful when we’ve got these bullying situations, or is it… I mean, something I personally try and do in meetings is call on women to ask what their thoughts are, or when somebody’s not in the room, being an advocate for another one of my colleagues that I think does strong work that might be able to step into something new. Is that the kind of stuff that helps, or how do we make some positive change here?

0:14:10.2 AC: 100%. I think that we already know from the research that a lot of things that keeps people, enrolls and keep them persistent at institutions is having a good supportive supervisor, good supportive colleagues, their departments, those micro-systems, those little micro-environments within institutions, and our relationships. And so, I would 100% agree. First of all, I love that you used Bridesmaids. I use pop culture often. I actually… I wrote an article kind of comparing what’s been going on in higher education to the movie Nine to Five, saying that… That was the ’80s, and now we’re in 2020, and we’re still having some of these conversations about workplace inequity, right?

0:14:53.4 KV: Well, Dolly is always continually saving us, so…

0:14:56.6 AC: Oh my god, yes. And what I think is so funny is, each person I talk to brings up… So I’m particularly a Dolly fan as well, but most women I talk to, they either bring up Lily Tomlin or Jane Fonda. Everybody has one woman in that movie they really relate to, right? And… Sorry, my brain went off in a totally different direction of like, it’s not the most diverse cast at all, and obviously, I hope we have a more diverse group of folks working in higher education right now, but the point is that they work together, that though we might have a favorite in that movie, they work together, so I go… I absolutely… I go back to that Bridesmaids example, to Nine to Five example, that if we can begin to support other women and not take… Every particular slight, maybe as an end point, and continue to build those relationships and foster those around us. My… One of my favorite quotes is by Toni Morrison. I can’t remember if I’ve told you this before, Kate, but…

0:15:55.9 KV: I don’t think you have.

0:15:57.9 AC: I love this Toni Morrison quote. She always used to say to her students who were graduating like… Okay, I’m gonna paraphrase this probably terribly, but… “Now you’re free. When you get these big… This big education, these degrees you worked so hard for, now you’re free, and it’s your job to turn around and free someone else. If you have some type of power, it’s your job to empower someone else.” And so…

0:16:20.4 KV: I like that.

0:16:21.6 AC: Yeah, that’s how I try to… That’s what I try to infuse into all of the ways we take our research and turn that into leadership development programs and experiences for women, and that’s how I try to lead in my space as best I can.

0:16:35.4 KV: Yeah. Well, I think that ties to our next challenge actually pretty nicely is… If you are… If it is your chance to change the world, there is a level of needing to find your voice. Some of that is advocating for yourself to make sure that you are being recognized for your accomplishments, but also, being vocal about what your, maybe, female colleagues have done, and being vocal about recognizing their accomplishments, so that they do get the same level of recognition as men in their field.

0:17:11.6 AC: 100%. I think we can really be sorta pushed in higher education, in any field, to sort of have the person at the top say like, “This is my accomplishment,” right? And I’m not saying we should minimize ourselves, but if we can lift up others around us and their accomplishments as well, and encourage leaders in our institutions to be sponsors for women, ’cause I feel like more than a mentor, somebody who’s willing to put your name out there in the room when you are not there is really, really helpful. I know we’ve been hearing that a lot, but I think there’s some ways… Okay, so for me, this really ties into the structural piece that I bring up often, right? And I wanna give an example of that that is probably… I think it’s potentially a little controversial right now, which is about impostor syndrome. I think one of the reasons it’s important for us to think differently about impostor syndrome, or this idea that… Women don’t believe in themselves, that we think we’re impostors, that we don’t belong in higher education, that the only reason we’ve gotten ahead is because of luck or someone else helping us, that we ourselves are not really the ones who are capable or ambitious enough to move forward to lead, right? Well, part of that is, no matter how much you believe in yourself, if you’re still seeing messages around you about structural inequities, about how there’s not enough room for all women, about how women aren’t as good…

0:18:45.0 AC: As men at being leaders, right? Or that they’re always facing these work-life balance challenges. And then you combine that with other identities; whether you’re a first generation college student like you and me, whether you’re queer or have a disability, or whether you’re a black, indigenous woman of color, you combine those intersecting identities. And then, is it really impostor syndrome, or is it that the structures that we’re in were not necessarily originally set up for us, and we’re working on a daily basis to not only thrive and lead in them, but to make space and change them. And so, I think if we just think about impostor syndrome, we’re doing higher education a disservice. There’s only so much we can get professional development before the system that is developing us also needs to shift a little bit.

0:19:35.9 KV: Wow. There’s so much to unpack there. This is when I’m in over my head, sort of out of my league, and I’m continually impressed with all of the research that you’re doing to study this, and I just wanna learn so much more. One of the things that I think… Well, definitely, this came up a lot across the HIGHER series is this strong desire to find mentors. But something that I think a lot of people don’t realize is the importance of sponsors, having really great sponsors. So mentorship and sponsorship are totally two different things, and I think both of them are super important to the advancement of women, and… And this is… This shows up in your research too, right? Dr. ACT?

0:20:21.5 AC: 100%. 100%, yeah.

0:20:25.0 KV: Mentorship is when you are… Really either formal or informal, but somebody that you have a comfortable relationship with, where you can be completely vulnerable about challenges that you’re facing on the job, maybe in your personal life. But generally, your mentor is not somebody that’s your boss, or somebody that is going to be responsible for promoting you. Now, sponsorship, on the other side, is… Well, a sponsor is somebody that is advocating for you when you’re not in the room, so it’s like, “Well, hey, Kate runs a really, well… Ran a really great startup company, got bought by EAB. Maybe let’s… Putting her in charge of this, that, and the other, because of that experience.” And Kate is not in the room in that conversation; it’s somebody that knows about my work.

0:21:18.9 AC: Absolutely. Yes, and I really… I think that that is something that really helps to take women to the next level, right? And I also think that… It’s interesting how you say… Oh, but it can feel… Over the head of an individual to be able to do this, or overwhelming, or how can we do all of this, right? And what I think is really funny is, I always think back to how HIGHER ends, right? So like I mentioned before, I am… I wanna return to that. So why did I love going to that conference so much, right? So I got there in the morning, and there was an opportunity to network with other women. We were set up in a way where we were supposed to be sharing what we loved, and why we were there, and taking a day away from work to develop ourselves. And there was immediately time to reflect on all of the skills we had, all of the work we’ve done, to really go through this activity that helped us understand how much we brought to the table, right? And then we were able to hear from other women who were moving up in their career and doing inspirational things to get us inspired, right? And then, we didn’t try to do… Or you didn’t try to do what most one-day conferences said they’d do, which is you’re gonna leave a leader, right? We’re gonna get all the development in. No, we left…

0:22:41.5 KV: Just like that. [chuckle]

0:22:42.6 AC: Just like that, right? We took time in the afternoon to network more and make a leadership plan of what we were going to do short-term, mid-term, long-term to develop more as leaders. And I was blown away, because… At the very end of all of that, it turned back around on what we could do as we began to lead for others, right? So it wasn’t just about pushing forward, but also how you pulled other women up along the way, as you said, right? So you are saying you’re not sure, maybe, what would be next, but I go back to your advice often from that conference, which is about seeking leadership positions out early, talking about yourself, finding mentors and sponsors, trying a variety of different roles. But also, the different things, as we led, that we could do for other women: Nominating them for leadership positions, suggesting that they be on teams, trying to hire and showcase a broader range of women from all backgrounds. And then, really, when we got into those higher leadership roles, what we could do for the institution, right? Could we be looking at the way we identify specific measures? Do we have the opportunity to select our partners and do policy change, right? From HR, to even for students for admission. So… I mean, I’m just highlighting a couple of the things, but… I really feel like I’ve also learned a lot from you and the women you’ve gathered from all over the country through this HIGHER conference about some of the ways we can move forward.

0:24:20.2 KV: Yeah. I mean, the… I think the biggest thing for me that came out of it… Higher ed, typically, is so siloed, in that there’s the staff side, and then there’s the academic side, and it was really cool to see folks in the Provost Office coming together with VPs and starting to understand why certain things happen the way they do on campus and have felt… Just like a very healthy kind of conversation. And then naturally, throughout the day, as you’re having a chance to talk through all of your accomplishments and milestones, you’re kind of subtly getting people that potentially could become sponsors for you on different campuses, when different roles are opening up. It doesn’t have to be… I work with a lot of people on finding mentors and how to build a network of sponsors, and it can be organic. And you can talk about your accomplishments. I mean, you don’t wanna be super… It is sort of a fine line, I guess. You don’t wanna be super braggy, but nobody’s gonna know how awesome you are unless you tell them, so toot your own horn a little bit.

0:25:25.2 KV: I think it’s totally fine, and I love hearing about people crushing it. So, I think… That happening live, seeing that in action at HIGHER, and hearing people’s stories, and then following up, and seeing them grow in roles… I mean, I… Am connected, are you connected, are you friends with people on LinkedIn, whatever. I see people getting new titles, moving up, and I remember them talking about some of the challenges they were facing, and people hyping them up. All of the Bridesmaids airplane scene, you know, “You smell like pine needles” moment, and now they’re running stuff. So, it feels like it’s working; not that HIGHER is the reason, but hopefully, it helped people to feel more empowered. And we are now, for folks that are listening, hopefully you’re still listening, but Dr. ACT and I decided to join forces, because we liked each other that much and loved our conversations together, so now her and her team are paired with running the HIGHER series. And… They’re doing webinars, and we are continuing the movement, so… Would you like to share a little bit about your vision for how you see that coming together, along with some of your research?

0:26:45.0 AC: Yeah, absolutely. I think that it is the small things we do today that add up across the nation, that do make change, and that’s one of the things that really makes me optimistic. So I feel like I could say… We could keep talking about bullying, right? Is it impostor syndrome, or is it a structural issue. But… And how women staff are one of the most under-researched areas in higher education. Or we can talk about the small things that are going on all across the country. And so, that is one of the things I think when I think about the vision of HIGHER, is how are we inspiring and then equipping other women through networking to be able to develop some of these tools for themselves?

0:27:32.5 AC: And so, first, I think one of the things we’re doing is, we’ve been offering free webinars during the pandemic about issues from what we’ve learned from the pandemic and how to move forward afterwards, like what we’re taking with us, as well as looking at different structural areas in higher education for women like student affairs, enrolment management, faculty… We’ve been looking at how to better… And doing a series of women talking about how… On panels, how to better support women of color in the workplace, particularly as supervisors, of women of color. And so, we leveraged some of these things into doing some virtual conferences for some women’s groups in higher education, and one group I’d love to give a shout out to is to Wayne State. So we recently… Yeah, amazing work they’re doing…

0:28:25.0 KV: Oh yeah. I love them. That team is incredible.

0:28:27.6 AC: It’s so true. I feel like their story is one of the ones that give me the most optimism, right? A group of women came to a HIGHER conference, ended up getting their institution to get the Wisr software and started a women’s mentoring program called Wayne Women LEAD. And then they brought us in to do another HIGHER conference to introduce it to more women on their campus and grow their leadership group on campus, and they had the attendance of senior women leaders across campus as their inspirational speakers. And it was really, really great. And so, in August, on August 25th, we’re gonna be hosting a full day HIGHER virtual conference nationwide until we can finally be back together in person. We’re hoping the following year, we’ll be able to launch a series of regional HIGHER summits.

0:29:19.9 KV: I just love our conversations. If we were in person, I’d, with your permission, give you a very big hug. I’m so proud to know you as a friend and colleague, and I love seeing everything that you’re accomplishing, and I’m enjoying viewing from the cheap seats now as you and the rest of the team start to drive HIGHER forward, so imagine me giving you a nice big hug right now, Dr. ACT.

0:29:48.4 AC: I would absolutely take that. I’m really excited. I mean, I can’t say enough about how wonderful it’s been to meet the women across the country that you brought together, and then continue to add to that community and be able to continually lift up and… Redevelop this curriculum, and I do think it’s making change. I have to be honest, I definitely started today. It’s a Thursday. It’s cold again. I don’t know how it got cold again. It’s supposed to rain all weekend long, and I was kinda like, “Oh man, optimism, how do I muster that?” But honestly, I’m feeling very caffeinated, ’cause I did drink our favorite Rising Star coffee while we were talking, and I’m feeling really optimistic for… How our continued partnership between the research sort of practice component of delivering these HIGHER summits is gonna make change for women in higher education. Even if it’s for a few, I’ll take that as a win, win, win.

0:30:51.2 KV: Yeah, same. Thanks, everybody, for joining and listening during office hours with EAB. I’m Kate Volzer, CEO and co-founder of Wisr, which is now a part of EAB, and today, I was joined by Dr. Angela Clark-Taylor, who is the director of the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women, and we appreciate your listening, so come back again next time.


0:31:26.5 Speaker 1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week, when our guests offer strategies that nearly all institutions will need to adopt as they look for more effective ways to manage student mental health. Until then, thank you for your time.

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