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Peacemakers and Rabble Rousers: Women Leaders as Activists in Higher Education

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Center for Women Gender and Sexuality Womxn in Student Affairs
July 26, 2019 Sonja Ardoin, Ph.D. Christopher Broadhurst


This qualitative study explores how women leaders work as activists for other women through their administrative positions within higher education. Overall, participants shared their complicated relationships with the words feminist and activist and described how they engage in social change for women and other underrepresented populations in individual, group, and community contexts. Suggestions to advance equity for women in higher education involve both short-term and long-term strategies—such as self-advocacy, intentional professional development programs, representation, and policy development.

Despite active attempts to improve policies and climates for women on campuses, such as the passage of Title IX in 1972, gender inequity still persists in higher education. Women’s enrollment began to surpass that of men in the late 1970s, and by 2013, comprised nearly 57% of enrollment in higher education. Women have made comparable strides in degree attainment, representing 57% of bachelor’s degrees, nearly 60% of master’s degrees, and over 51% of doctoral degrees awarded in the 2012/2013 academic year (Snyder, de Brey, & Dillow, 2016). In spite of the achievement of greater equality in enrollment and degree completion, women have still not attained equity in faculty positions and upper-level administrative ranks. Although earning the majority of graduate degrees, in 2011 only 41.8% of full-time faculty members were women; among full professors, that percentage was reduced to 28% (Curtis, 2011). Within certain fields, such as engineering or the physical and biological sciences, the underrepresentation is even more pronounced (AFT Higher Education, 2011). The lack of gender equity is also evident among the upper administrative ranks. In 2006, only 23% of college presidents and 38% of provosts/chief academic officers were women. When examining doctoral institutions exclusively, women represent only 13.8% of college presidents and 23% of provosts/chief academic officers in 2006 (Curtis, 2011; King & Gomez, 2008). Little improvement in achieving equal representation among chief academic officers was attained in the past decade, as women still only comprised 37.7% of all newly appointed provosts in the 2014/2015 academic year (Hammond, 2015).

In addition to the sobering statistics regarding the lack of gender equity in hiring trends, women in higher education also face negative climates and policies that present barriers for reducing marginalization. Women faculty earn about 80% of the salary of men faculty, a gap that has decreased very little since the 1970s (Curtis, 2011; Hammond, 2015; Snyder et al., 2016). The low percentages of women among faculty and administration limit mentoring opportunities for women beginning their careers in higher education (Blackhurst, 2000; Brown, 2005; Hagedorn & Laden, 2002). Institutional cultures influenced by gender discrimination, such as pressure to alter leadership styles to conform to gender norms, preconceptions that women leaders are inferior to men, and societal concepts related to gender roles and familial obligations, can impede both women’s advancement and their ability to lead (Costello, 2012; Gill & Jones, 2013; Haber-Curran, 2013; Turner, Norwood, & Noed, 2013; West, 2014). Moreover, women have increased experiences of discrimination and negative climates on campuses, including reporting more incidents of sexual harassment (Hagedorn & Laden, 2002; Shepela & Levesque, 1998; Townsend, 2009).

Much of the progress women have witnessed in higher education has been the result of activists fighting for social and organizational change (Kezar & Lester, 2008; Rhoads, 2016). Although a copious amount of the higher education literature focuses on student activists’ attempts to influence campus administrators to either enact or create policies, the roles faculty and administrators assume as they themselves work as change agents are often discounted (Kezar, Gallant, & Lester, 2011). While not all women in higher education choose to be activists (Kezar & Lester, 2008), nor should they be expected to, women in leadership positions in higher education are situated to compel organizational change, should they choose to engage in gender-related activism (Allen & Cherrey, 2003; Harrison, 2014; Hart, 2009b). For our study, we sought out women who choose to actively advocate for policy changes through formal, mid-to-senior level positional leadership roles, which provide them with some power to affect change within their institutions. This study focuses only on the experiences of cisgender women leaders and utilizes literature that speaks to experiences of cisgender women and cisgender men, or those assumed to identify that way.1 Guided by the social change model of leadership (Higher Education Research Institute, 1996), this qualitative study sought to understand the following research question: How are women leaders working as activists within higher education?

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