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Fall 2012/Winter 2013

Volume 41
Numbers 2-3

Challenges and Opportunities for Women's Leadership


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Shyama Venkateswar   Kadija Ferryman  
Shyama Venkateswar
Kadija Ferryman

Action Research to Improve the Lives of Women and Girls
Shyama Venkateswar, director of research and programs, and Kadija Ferryman, member center liaison—both of the National Council for Research on Women

Now celebrating its thirtieth year, the National Council for Research on Women (NCRW) is a network of 120 leading US research, policy, and advocacy centers with a growing global reach. NCRW’s core mission is to bring attention via research and evidence to the structural issues that constrain women’s leadership, and to generate a dialogue on the solutions to these issues. Harnessing the power of more than two thousand experts, NCRW provides the knowledge, analysis, and thought leadership necessary to build a more inclusive, equitable, and secure world for women and girls, as well as for their families, communities, and nations.

Three of NCRW’s recent initiatives have particular implications for research and advocacy in higher education. Through two recent projects—Leadership in Higher Education: A Path to Greater Racial and Gender Diversity and Diversifying the Leadership of Women’s Research, Policy, and Advocacy Centers—as well as its current Collective Impact research initiative, NCRW aims to assist its higher education member centers in strengthening their work on behalf of women and girls.

Leadership in Higher Education

After identifying the scarcity of women and particularly women of color in higher education leadership as a critical issue, NCRW launched Leadership in Higher Education: A Path to Greater Racial and Gender Diversity in 2003. Focusing on racial and gender bias in colleges and universities, the project had three interrelated goals: (1) to identify best practices for enhancing diversity among students, staff, faculty, and within the curriculum; (2) to identify models for administrative and faculty leadership that creates and sustains greater diversity; and (3) to analyze the institutional architecture necessary to support those practices and models.

To help guide the project, NCRW convened a committee of experts on diversity and institutional transformation. It also conducted site visits at eight campuses representing a wide range of institutional types and geographic locations. A protocol for the site visits helped ensure comparable data despite the institutions’ range and diversity. Concluded in 2006 and disseminated via our web site in 2011, the study generated the following key findings:

  1. The definition of diversity is contested. Definitions of diversity are elusive and expanding, in some cases linked to the country’s changing demographics, and in others to shifting cultural values and battlegrounds within US society. When working to increase campus diversity, campus climate is as important as target numbers.
  2. Presidents have unique roles as leaders. Presidents hold unique power and capacity to create change, to build community, and to set and articulate values and goals for an institution. Because of this, transitions from one president to another can be times of opportunity and vulnerability for diversity efforts. Having a single office or officer with senior status and funding who reports directly to the president and is responsible for overall institutional diversity will ensure that the commitment to diversity is consistent and coherent.
  3. Institutional hierarchy provides an avenue for leadership on diversity, but benchmarks must be clear. Administrators at all levels in the established hierarchy can exert leadership for diversity through reporting and accountability relationships, budgetary authority, and influence in hiring, promotion, tenure, advancement, and programmatic and curricular development. However, clear and quantifiable campus-wide benchmarks for success are key to catalyzing and supporting this leadership.
  4. Tensions exist between different loci of power in a shared governance system, with real implications for leadership. Operating with relative independence or under the influence of senior faculty, schools and departments sometimes make localized decisions (for example, those related to hiring and tenure) without regard for a campus’s diversity plan. To operationalize a diversity plan across these silos, effective leadership must establish incentives and shared values that make increased diversity a desirable goal for everyone.
  5. Effective leaders work through coalitions. Coalitions can assume a variety of forms, from diversity task forces to curricular efforts linking programs and schools to informal networks of concerned individuals.
  6. Interdisciplinary education and research programs provide special sites for leadership, coalition building, and intellectual diversity. Interdisciplinary academic or research programs often focus on issues related to different types of diversity and are sites for diverse faculty and students to come together outside the formal hierarchy and the traditional academic disciplines.
  7. External factors create special challenges. The increasingly competitive funding environment has negative impacts on diversity work. Additional pressures include political movements to end affirmative action and external evaluations by ranking, accrediting, and standard-setting institutions.

The study identified key areas of further research and action focused on how higher education’s leadership and institutional structures (both formal and informal) can respond meaningfully to changing imperatives and conditions for diversity.

Diversity in Our Member Centers

Women’s research, policy, and advocacy centers such as those in our network have long been a driving force for legislation like Title IX, the Violence Against Women Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act. Yet the leadership within these centers has often inadequately reflected the vision, energies, perspectives, and concerns of women of color.

To help address this challenge, NCRW launched Diversifying the Leadership of Women’s Research, Policy, and Advocacy Centers in 2008. With this two-year project, NCRW aimed to address the historical underrepresentation of women of color within the fields of women’s studies and research, and to foster the development of a new generation of leaders. In order to encourage and support the advancement of women of color, six participating member centers developed activities in connection with the project. Their consolidated strategies offer guidelines for other institutions seeking greater racial diversity in their leadership.

  1. Undertake a needs assessment to help identify specific diversity goals.
  2. Create and expand the number of strategic, decision-making positions within the institution to create a path to leadership for younger women of color and ultimately increase their numbers at leadership levels.
  3. Form advisory boards that include women of color.
  4. Create a fund to support scholarly work and enhance career opportunities for junior women of color faculty.
  5. Create sites and safe spaces where women of color, who tend to be isolated within their departments and institutions, can come together for mutual support and greater collective impact within the institution.
  6. Build partnerships with outside institutions, departments, and programs to increase the participation of women from underrepresented groups in the ongoing work and future direction of the organization.
  7. Support diversity training to enhance individuals’ sensitivities to differences and create cultural change.
  8. Use outside expertise to provide mentoring, modeling, skill building, and support for women of color within institutions that have few senior women of color.
  9. Develop formal and informal mentoring programs for women of color.
  10. Host career-oriented skills workshops to help ensure academic success for young scholars of color.
  11. Increase visibility for women of color and the research and policy issues that affect them in order to incorporate their interests, perspectives, and research more centrally in the field.
  12. Disseminate outcomes, insights, new understandings, and possible future steps.
From Research to Action

Creating deep and meaningful change requires long-term investments that are sensitive to the changing definitions of diversity, shifting power dynamics within and outside of higher education institutions, and new imperatives for inclusion of diverse people, ideas, and perspectives in academic work. With this in mind, NCRW has adopted the Collective Impact methodology, which argues that complex problems require multidimensional solutions crafted by multiple players. This methodology calls for cross-sector alignments where government, nonprofit, philanthropic, and corporate entities work toward shared goals using clear metrics for progress and change.

Building on our commitment to social justice and advancing women’s leadership, NCRW recently launched a new initiative, Building Collective Impact: Strengthening Economic Security for Women. Our work on higher education and member center diversity has increased our capacity to incorporate multiple perspectives and convene a wide range of stakeholders for this project. As an organization with a vibrant member network at the nexus of feminist research, policy, and advocacy, we are uniquely positioned to develop a shared vision for change, engage in mutually reinforcing activities, and facilitate continuous communication across multiple players.

The questions at the core of this initiative include the following: Can we harness a Collective Impact methodology to lessen poverty and build sustainable economic security for low-income women, and could our various efforts to increase educational access and enhance employment opportunities for women benefit from a Collective Impact approach? Could such an approach enable women and men to apply their diverse talents to endeavors that are sorely needed in the twenty-first century—in STEM, the green economy, and paid caretaking work—to strengthen our country’s economy and spur greater equality and social justice? NCRW is in the process of creating a steering committee that will develop goals, strategies, metrics, timelines, and funding plans to catalyze action around these questions.

NCRW’s work is “action research”: advancing scholarship for meaningful policy changes that improve the lives of women and girls. We invite you to visit or contact us at for more information about NCRW and its projects and initiatives.


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