Boost Women’s Leadership? First Redefine What it Means to Be a Leader

As the senior student affairs officer, I was once in an annual meeting between the president of an elite university and the editorial board of the student-run daily newspaper. Typically, the student team included the editor-in-chief, who leads the meeting, and the heads of key departments.

For the first time in several years, the editor in chief was a woman. As the meeting started, I looked forward to hearing from her, a young woman who had risen through the ranks to such an important campus leadership position. But what she did surprised me.

Silence. Absolute silence. As the key department heads, all male, peppered the president (also male) with questions and commentary, this young woman observed, nodded, but said very little, even when the president and I asked her questions.

It was not clear whether she did not know what to do or was just shy. Perhaps she conceived of her role radically differently than had previous editors.

Clearly, she was highly competent; the editor-in-chief of a student newspaper is a key student leadership position achieved through competition and a rigorous selection process.

But her silence undercut her authority as a leader—and her effectiveness in that meeting. 

Women’s leadership, on campus and beyond

This moment is not unusual. Many times my fellow student affairs professionals and I have meetings with groups of students, and the president is a man while the vice president, social chair, or outreach coordinators are women. It is not that these other positions are unimportant. It’s that the preponderance of male executive leadership is overwhelming—and depressing. 

“Even in societies and organizations that value gender equality and invest in initiatives to reach it, women are underrepresented in most senior-level leadership positions,” states an article in Harvard Business Review. “They account for less than 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs, less than 15% of executive officers at those companies, less than 20% of full professors in the natural sciences, and only 6% of partners in venture capital firms.”

Most research points to the realm of education as the best place to make a start in changing this. Many women’s first—and often only—experience with “feeling like a leader” comes in academics, according to the recent KPMG Women’s Leadership Study. Sadly, though, when they enter the work world, this aspiration, ambition, and confidence can fade away.

The study also points to how education is failing women: While 86% of women recall being taught to “be nice to others,” only 44% were taught to “be a good leader.”

We’re not doing enough

The paucity underrepresentation of women in senior leadership roles isn’t an uncommon topic of foreign conversation. In fact, it’s one occurring in corporate corridors, governmental offices, and the halls of higher education across the country. Colleges and universities choose students for their potential impact on society with the assumptions that each will lead in some way. Over the years, many have attempted to develop programs to support women’s leadership. 

But the number of women leaders we produce is not keeping pace.

For instance, Princeton’s 2011 Women’s Leadership Report revealed that in terms of leadership, women had lost ground, having fewer women students in top positions than there were in the years when the university first began admitting women.

Examining whether things on campus had changed, student Marni Morse wrote in a recent opinion column in the Daily Princetonian:“Female students were consistently underselling themselves; women were active in organizations but chose less visible, behind-the-scenes roles; other students were actively discouraging women from seeking the highest leadership positions.” Despite some progress, Morse wrote, “let’s not break out the champagne quite yet... It would be a huge mistake to consider the problem solved—because it isn’t.”

What to do: Start by redefining leadership

If we know that there is a lack of women in top leadership positions on campus and beyond, and we know that we’re not doing enough to encourage women to rise to the highest positions in our universities and corporations, then what can we, as administrators, do to more successfully encourage our young women to grow into the leaders they can be?

The first step—a step any one of us can immediately take—is to expand our concept of who and what a leader is: to reframe leadership.

As I think more deeply about my experience in the meeting with the female editor-in-chief, I recognize my own bias that is also held by many others: I believe a leader should be in control of the room, extroverted, confident, talkative. Silence is not what I immediately associate with leadership.  But silence may be a healthy sign of introspection, attentive listening or some other important trait.

An article on leadership in higher education, in the International Journal of Leadership and Change, touches on these perceptions. Leadership styles typically associated with women include facilitative, or helpful in navigating others towards success; communal or participative, which emphasize sharing vision and information; and task-oriented, or focused on administration. Styles typically associated with male leaders include hierarchical, referring to the traditional “top down” approach; and transactional—emphasizing quid pro quo arrangements.

Like many biases, these are not well grounded in reality. In an article in Entrepreneur magazine, consultant Steve Tobak exposes some of these myths. Take my ideal that a leader should be extroverted, confident, and talkative: If this were a requirement, then with all due respect, “Bill Gates and Warren Buffet would be out of luck,” Tobak writes.

Another example; Angela Ahrendts, senior vice president at Apple and former Burberry CEO: “My dad used to tell me, growing up [citing Abraham Lincoln], ‘It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and relieve them of all doubt.’ So I kept remembering that and chose not to over-communicate,” she told Fortune magazine. She started her tenure at Apple with a listening tour, the magazine reported, “answering questions, hearing complaints, and bestowing her infectious energy and empathy on employees. (You could call her Apple’s chief emotive officer.)”

If we are going to support a broader range of leaders, we will have to value a variety of leadership styles. This reframing will not only address gender dynamics, but also expand how we accept leaders of different ethnic, socioeconomic, and national origin. Thoughtful, contemplative leaders who listen intently to their constituents add their own special value to any company.

As the gender gap closes in workplaces, more such nuanced, individualistic leadership styles will emerge. If higher education does its job, many female professionals, and some male professionals, too, will have what they need to shape these styles—and find their places at the top.