Slow progress for female academic leaders in a “Women can have it all” environment.
Marisa Kelly can remember the exact moment when she realized that she was more interested in reading the Chronicle of Higher Education than reading the American Political Science Review.
“It was an ‘aha’ moment for me,” Kelly said, sitting in her office overlooking downtown Boston.
Kelly, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost of Suffolk University, has a PhD in political science from the University of Kansas and began her career as a political science faculty member at the University of the Pacific. She had the opportunity to serve on university committees as a junior faculty member. This started her interest early in her career in questions of higher education leadership and institution building, she said.
Despite a growing number of women in academic leadership, most of the top jobs in higher education are still held by men.
In Boston, a woman holds one of the top jobs in higher education — the president of Harvard University. Several other women have earned places as deans and provosts, but Drew Faust is the only one who sits in the president’s office.
Nationwide, only 26 percent of college presidents are women, increased from 10 percent in 1980.
The idea that discrimination is absent from higher education is more conceptual than pragmatic, according to Julie Frechette, a communication professor at Worcester State University, whose scholarly work focuses on media and gender and feminist studies. Frechette published a paper, Women, Leadership, and Equality in Academe: Moving beyond Double Binds in 2009, based on her research and experiences as a woman in higher education.
Universities are thought to be a place where “we can do better,” Frechette said, and though discrimination may look different, it is not absent.
Higher education is better than other realms, but discrimination is more camouflaged, Frechette said.
A successful administrative career begins in the classroom, according to several administrators at Boston universities.
“The best training for the job I have now is having been in a whole range of roles including and most importantly, faculty member,” Jean Morrison, provost and chief academic officer at Boston University, said.
In approaching an academic leadership positions, it is important to have your scholarly reputation in order first, Mary Loeffelholz, vice provost for academic affairs at Northeastern University, said.
Loeffelholz, a professor of English, earned her PhD from Yale University and came to Northeastern University in 1988. She began her administrative career as chair of the English department in 2001, and also served as an associate dean, director of the graduate school of the College of Arts and Sciences and as special assistant to the president of academic affairs.
Morrison also agreed with this, “You have to establish yourself as a serious and nationally respected scholar in your field first.”
Morrison spent 22 years at the University of Southern California, first as a geology and earth sciences professor, and later as the executive vice provost for academic affairs before coming to Boston University in 2011.
Universities need “academic leaders who can lead by example,” Loeffelholz said.
As Provost, it is Morrison’s job to facilitate the faculty’s work with students to ensure students get the best education, and having been a faculty member herself, she understands first-hand the problems, frustrations and joys, she said.
As well as academic credentials, academic leaders need to have served in supervisor positions, such as department chairs and deans, in areas of the university where students are being served and the core mission is carried out, Loeffelholz said. She feels her time as chair of the English department gave her this experience.
Loeffelholz recommends taking advantage of opportunities to be a supervisor. “For women especially, if you skip the (supervisor) part…it can be difficult to go back an get that step if you haven’t done it at a logical point, and shown that you can sail a ship,” she said.
For Loeffelholz, sitting on committees and serving on the faculty senate led her to find out that she can make a difference in the direction of the university.
She also learned that it’s “not always about having formal power at your disposal, so much as the power to persuade and make recommendations.”
For Loeffelholz, her time on the faculty senate allowed her to see how things are done and how they work across the university and to work with people outside of her department.
It was also an opportunity to make mistakes, without causing too much disaster, she said. Loeffelholz chaired a faculty senate development committee to develop a process for early tenure, before she had gone through tenure herself. The group failed to consult with the Provost’s office and their resulting plan, favored by the senate, went to the Provost, who pointed out the flaws.
It’s important to think about a person’s total career path and to make sure that steps aren’t being skipped that would make it more difficult for them in that position, Loeffelholz said.
Kelly of Suffolk University, benefited from the kind of oversight that Loeffelholz recommends. As an associate dean at the University of the Pacific, Kelly was asked by the Dean what skills she felt she lacked and then found ways to build those experiences, preparing. By actively recognizing where she needed to improve, Kelly prepared herself for career advancement and each position along the way contributed to her role as provost.
“Mentoring is critical to move forward,” Kelly said.
It is important to let people cultivate leadership qualities, it’s not about having an innate leadership gene or not, Loeffelholz said.
“I can’t overstate the importance of people who give you a chance,” Morrison said of those who have supported her career.
Though the women interviewed all had male and female mentors, Frechette emphasized the importance of forming networks and mobilizing with other women.
This is a “wonderful time to do this,” Frechette said, because it is possible for women around the world to connect with each other and share stories.
It is also vital so that when issues arise in a woman’s career she can have someone to go to for guidance, Frechette said.
Half of all undergraduates are women, so it is important to have more women in these positions, Morrison said.
Diverse leadership is necessary because “any individual in one of these roles brings the sum of their experiences…people have very different life experiences,” Morrison said.
Female leaders address different policies and issues and can help them be taken seriously by other administrators, Frechette said.
Increasing the numbers of women leaders begins with identifying them in the faculty, but also by looking for a wide range of candidates when hiring.
Training is provided “all of the time,” at Boston University, according to Morrison, for people in hiring roles to learn to avoid implicit bias during searches.
According to the 2011 Massachusetts Institute of Technology report on the status of women, bias against women occurs during the hiring process. An example is in letters of recommendation for women, which MIT faculty members felt were written differently and less favorably than for comparable male candidates. Educating people on how to read these letters with attention to bias is part of the solution, according to the report.
There is also the problem of undermining the confidence of women faculty with the perception that they are receiving different treatment. “This notion led several faculty to question whether they were hired because they were women,” the MIT report said.
Women in academic leadership roles need to be mobile, since advancing often means relocation. Something women are statistically more concerned about for family and other personal reasons, Loeffelholz said.
Morrison spent 22 years at the University of Southern California, where her husband was also a faculty member for 35 years, before coming to Boston. “The opportunity came up to be the Provost,” Morrison said, and despite leaving behind friends and colleagues, she made the career move.
“A pervasive issue is that of two career couples, where stress associated with finding academic or other positions for both partners is extensive” the MIT report said.
Kelly has held positions at four other universities before coming to Suffolk University. With her early administrative positions, she balanced raising two young children. Kelly acknowledged that some of her moves were difficult for her children, and this is something she discusses with female colleagues now.
In the beginning, Kelly found the balance between work and her home life more compatible than when she was a faculty member. “It’s a lot harder to find someone to cover a class,” Kelly said.
Although there may be more flexibility in academia for women balancing work and family, the idea that women need to be perfect both at work and at home perpetuates the idea that women are supposed to be good at everything, Frechette said.
This stems from an attitude in the 1980s and 90s, Frechette said, where women were told, “just do it and you’ll succeed,” often leading to exhaustion.
“You don’t have to do everything all at once,” Frechette said.
The climate for women in higher education has improved, but real barriers still exist. The best way to combat this, Frechette said, is to become aware by reading to understand patterns of gender discrimination and to pay attention to gender dynamics.
Understanding the challenges for women before reveals broader patterns and allows women to feel less defeated and “be victim to the system,” Frechette said.
“Women can have it all, just not always at the same time,” Frechette said.