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Fall 2012/Winter 2013

Volume 41
Numbers 2-3

Challenges and Opportunities for Women's Leadership


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Judith White  
Judith White

HERS at Forty: Shaping a New Vision of Women’s (and Men’s) Liberation
Judith White, president and executive director of HERS

In 2012, Higher Education Resource Services (HERS) celebrated forty years of advancing women leaders and advocating gender equity in higher education. It is not a coincidence that we share our anniversary with Title IX. HERS was founded with the bold assumption that women should have a role in implementing the new legal mandate for gender equity on campus and shaping inclusive practices where exclusion had been the norm. To help build the leadership capacity to realize this vision, in 1976 the organization launched the HERS Institutes, our residential leadership development programs. Since then, over 4,300 women leaders from over 1,100 campuses have participated in the institutes and helped to change their institutions.

After forty years, is the work of creating inclusive campuses complete? Of course not—it would be impossible to effect complete social transformation in a few short decades. But we have seen progress, the greatest part of which has come for students. Since Title IX’s passage, women’s share of degrees has increased significantly. Women now earn more than half of degrees at all levels, including doctoral degrees, where their representation has grown from a mere 13 percent in 1960–70 to 53 percent in 2009–10 (White House Project 2009; Chronicle of Higher Education 2012). At the same time, success has been elusive in other areas, including women’s advancement into top leadership positions. According to the latest data from the American Council on Education, only 26 percent of presidents and chancellors are women, with only modest increases over the past five years. In addition, women more often hold the executive position in associate-degree-granting institutions than in those that grant higher degrees: women are 33 percent of presidents and chancellors in community colleges and only 22 to 23 percent in bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral-granting institutions (American Council on Education 2012, 11).

As the staff, faculty, and board of HERS look toward our next decade of our work, we can see that the need for both advancing women leaders and advocating for gender equity in higher education is still great. We are committed to working strategically and energetically to develop a new approach to liberation for the next generation of women in higher education. Like many feminist advocacy organizations, our goal is to further our current understandings of what gender equity means, and to advocate for continuing exploration of those understandings. At HERS, we are pursuing this goal by creating a women-focused environment that is broadly representative of diverse women’s communities, and by working within that environment to conduct research on women’s leadership. Our work is yielding perspectives that are relevant to women and men seeking to implement a broader vision of equity and inclusion in higher education.   

The Importance of Critical Mass

As part of its pursuit of broad gender equity goals, HERS is committed to supporting more women as they advance to higher education’s top leadership roles. Over 400 HERS alumnae are currently presidents, chancellors, provosts, vice presidents, or deans. Nonetheless, the number of women in top executive roles is smaller than what we might want, and women’s representation in those roles is growing very slowly. When it comes to creating equitable gender representation in leadership, the impetus for change seems spent. At best, organizations have been holding steady rather than progressing.

Some are surprised by these observations. They note the success of women in visible top positions—in the Ivy League or at flagship institutions. But they have lost track of how many leadership roles are still held by men and of how often women at the top move between visible roles, leaving openings that are frequently filled by male candidates. Ironically, it is often women incumbents who note with pride that “no one is concerned about the gender of the next president.” Unfortunately, it is more accurate to say that no one is focused on pursuing gender equity as they seek the next president.

The theory of critical mass suggests why it is so important to continue to focus on increasing the number of women leaders. Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s work on critical mass indicates that when a group (in this case, women) constitutes over one-third of the population, it is able to create new social forces that restructure our ways of thinking and acting (1977). Of course, this is also the percentage at which backlash almost certainly occurs. Having a critical mass of women with power to change things is important both as a measure of gender equity, and as a method for enacting social change to make our institutions more inclusive.

Having women leaders in top positions is not in and of itself a solution to gender inequity—but it is part of the solution. The more people are present to “represent” any social category, the less “representative” of that category each individual has to be. The more diversity among women is evident, the more individual women can speak up without feeling as though they are speaking for a group. Social change takes time, but it does not come simply with time or with numbers. It requires new patterns of private behavior as well as a collective shift in behaviors supported by new institutional policies and practices. We cannot take for granted that women moving into leadership roles will be focused on equity, although we have strong indicators that many will start out that way. But with a critical mass of women leaders in place, the policies and practices that support equity will no longer depend on the advocacy of any single individual.

With critical mass so vital for women in leadership, we at HERS are asking: Why have the numbers remained so low, and what can we do to change them?

Fortieth Anniversary Research

In marking our fortieth anniversary, the HERS board undertook a series of new activities that combined looking back at the last four decades with looking forward to the decade ahead. We collected views of senior women leaders concerning the future of higher education and their own pathways to senior leadership, beginning by gathering data about these issues at a HERS Summit for Women Presidents and Chancellors convened in spring 2012. We sought insights that might help address women’s slow advancement to the presidency, insights crucial at this particular moment of challenge and opportunity. In the next decade, a significant number of openings for new presidents and chancellors are likely to occur (with 58 percent of incumbents now over 60 years old) (American Council on Education 2012, 49). Many other senior leaders will also be leaving cabinet-level roles. These expected openings represent an opportunity to build a newly diverse cohort of higher education leaders at a time when the need for creative and inclusive leadership has never been greater.

In addition to conducting research at the presidents’ summit, HERS undertook two research projects focused on issues for women leaders in higher education. First, HERS collaborated with the Center for Creative Leadership and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to conduct research on the career paths of senior women leaders (generally presidents, provosts, and vice presidents). In a series of interviews with thirty-five women leaders of different ages, ethnicities, and institutional backgrounds, we sought information about what factors facilitated, deterred, or derailed progress toward senior leadership goals. Second, HERS asked the two hundred participants in this year’s HERS Institutes to reflect on their experiences of leadership. The goal was to gather perspectives from women at a diverse range of career stages and institutions who represent a new generation of potential candidates for senior roles.

While we are still assessing the data we gathered through these projects, we encountered some clear themes that will frame our planning for the next decade. We learned, for example, that women senior leaders are motivated by passionately held values that they seek to advance through their work. At the HERS Summit for Women Presidents and Chancellors, participants consistently shared a particular set of priorities: learning, changing, and serving. These women see higher education as a vehicle for transforming individual lives, for changing social stratification and inequality, and for serving communities that suffer from uneven distribution of opportunities and resources. Passion inspires them to defy stereotypes and brave obstacles; seeing the difference they can make for individuals and institutions motivates them through difficult times. Our research also indicated that those who survive and finally thrive in today’s difficult leadership environment have developed personal grounding and political skills over time that can be models for other women leaders. We found that women of color particularly value encouragement and support from other women leaders, because they feel more pressure to succeed “on their own.”       

Yet none of this information will be of much use unless we can engage a larger cadre of younger women of all backgrounds in pursuing senior leadership roles. Our research has shown that like senior women leaders, women at mid-career stages and earlier want to act on their passionate commitments to equity and are eager to learn how to navigate the political landscape in order to create change on their campuses. But in a clear intergenerational divide, younger women are consistently more focused than their senior colleagues on finding a way to pursue these priorities while maintaining “balance” between their professional roles and their family and personal responsibilities—a framing that many senior women resist. Younger women’s concern with achieving balance suggests that we need a better critique and better alternatives to make leadership roles more appealing to the next generation of potential leaders.

Challenging the Concept of “Balance”

The HERS research makes clear that today’s rising women leaders want more time for family and personal life, especially as work life on campus has become more stretched and stressed. They do not see foregoing aspects of their personal lives as a heroic act; they want a way to have both work and family. They are right to want their lives to encompass more than one or the other. But too often, discussions that focus on the metaphor of balance foreclose on the possibility that there might be alternative, arguably more attainable options. We think that if we only knew how to achieve balance, we could each manage all that is asked of us—that if we can only “do it all,” we can “have it all.” This is a dangerous myth, and it leads many women to “do it all” without ever attaining the hoped-for result.

To develop a new critical vocabulary and new models of action, we need to acknowledge that when we urgently ask each other about achieving work–life balance, what we’re really asking is, “How are you managing to fulfill two gender roles?” That is, we are still accepting a bad deal inherited from an earlier era, when women could have access to authority and resources for shaping our lives and our communities only by inhabiting both female gender stereotypes and male ones. Attempting to better manage our end of that deal will not get us closer to gender equity—it will only perpetuate an old form of sexism.  

What we need to pursue together is not balance, but more options. Working with Ellen Ernst Kossek of Michigan State University, researchers from the Center for Creative Leadership have created a “work–life indicator” designed to assess patterns of how workers across gender mix and separate work and family (Kossek et al. 2011). Their model includes “separators,” who seek to keep high boundaries between work activity and personal activity; “integrators,” who deliberately keep fluid or low boundaries between these activities; “work firsters,” who let work interrupt family time; “family firsters,” who let family interrupt work time; and “cyclers,” who tend to keep high boundaries but alternate periods in which they arrange to focus more of their time on one or the other set of activities. This model interestingly disrupts the notion that attaining balance always means holding two elements in equal proportion.

More intriguing than the use of this model to describe individual behavior is the possibility that it could be a focal point for starting discussions of new policy options that more fully recognize multiple patterns of work. In a world where contingent assignments, part-time work, project work, and off-site contract work are increasingly prevalent modes of organizing labor, we need to speak up for the positive benefits of flexibility while also speaking out about the need to create better working conditions across all possible modes. We need to assert that “less than full-time” is a description of hours committed, not a value judgment. We need to advocate for a range of options that allow women and men to contribute in ways that honor their differences, especially in life circumstances that are often temporary.

We must include men in these conversations so that they can stake their claim in the changes and the challenges they face. At the beginning of their careers, many men prioritize work–life balance, but they struggle to stick to this commitment when they learn of the trade-offs in status and preferment that come with no longer conforming to the decades-old male stereotype. Until being “one of the guys” is no longer the standard, we are not going to see real changes in work–life patterns for women or men.

Calling for Public Discussions of Difference

The current focus on a single version of “work–life balance” constitutes a retreat from public discussions of differences, and it should be recognized by all those who care about equity as a great loss. In the process of settling for this narrow model rather than developing a public discourse about difference, women—especially white women—have become less engaged in other discussions about difference and inclusion and have thus neutralized their ability to advocate for a broad range of equity and inclusion issues. We “value” and “celebrate” differences, to be sure—but even this has often been a way of avoiding confrontation with differences or deeper examination of the meanings we have assigned to them.

Differences would not make so much difference if our society did not turn variations into hierarchies. When we pretend that these hierarchies don’t exist, we refuse to acknowledge that differences have been used to assign value to peoples and practices. We women must acknowledge that while gender is one of those differences that has been subject to such categorization, it has also been experienced differently by women across identities, often depending on their location within other targeted groups. Being unable to discuss our own, broadly varying experiences of discrimination as women leaves us less prepared to bring felt knowledge to understanding the impact of different hierarchies.

As we learned from the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, private and collective conversations are necessary to develop consciousness of overriding issues and their connections across differences. Alliances forged in this way led to civil rights legislation during the sixties and seventies and equity movements on our campuses in subsequent decades. In the twenty-first century, we need to engage in consciousness raising to develop new understandings of how inequity works, holding on to our differences while exploring our similarities, both of which are sources of connection and insight.

Reimagining Higher Education

HERS is committed to fostering the personal and collective conversations that are desperately needed if we are to shape new models for supporting women leaders from all our communities. HERS will continue to conduct research projects and share the results at conferences and in publications, as well as use the results to strengthen the HERS Institutes curriculum. We will increase the number of women of color who participate in both the research projects and the HERS Institutes so that our work contributes to creating a more diverse cadre of women in senior roles.

In addition, HERS will begin partnering with alumnae of HERS and other women’s leadership organizations to bring the personal and collective conversations higher education needs to campuses across the country. Our goal is to engage a more diverse set of women at various stages of their leadership development. Through these conversations, women across generations can begin to create new metaphors and models for how women and men can pursue their passionate commitments to work, family, and a just society.

To enact these new models, we need women leaders at the top levels of our institutions. Women must advocate from influential positions in order to shape the rules and routines that change culture. That means advocating for the benefits of workplaces that honor a person’s multiple experiences not as things to “balance” between work and life spheres but as elements that enhance a person’s ability to take on creative and demanding work. It also means advocating for re-valuing pay so that women and men across institutions earn compensation sufficient to support their families without having to be away from those families most of the time, for much of their working lives.

Such new models may seem like dreams today. But as higher education embraces its role in creating the new economy, we must seize the opportunity to create workplaces that support “full-life” (as opposed to “full-time”) options for many rather than few. We must start by changing the work culture that invites us to pursue career opportunities that match our ambitions only as long as we meet longstanding and exclusionary expectations for “performance.” With these changes, we can shape a new vision of liberation for women and men.


American Council on Education. 2012. The American College President 2012. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

Chronicle of Higher Education. 2012. “Degrees Awarded, by Race, Ethnicity, and Gender of Students, 2009–10.” Almanac of Higher Education 2012.

Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. 1977. “Some Effects of Proportions on Group Life: Skewed Sex Ratios and Responses to Token Women.” American Journal of Sociology 82 (5): 965–90.

Kossek, Ellen Ernst, Marian N. Ruderman, Kelly M. Hannum, and Phillip W. Braddy. 2011. “WorkLife Indicator: Increasing Your Effectiveness On and Off the Job (Feedback Report and Development Planning Guide.” Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.

White House Project. 2009. The White House Project Report: Benchmarking Women’s Leadership. New York, NY: White House Project.

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