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Issues for Women in Higher Education Administration
Authored by: Alice G. Reinarz

Unlike our grandmothers, most women currently in administrative roles were reared with a social message that 'you can do anything you want.' While that message has brought many exciting opportunities, many women have found that the unpredictable challenges can outweigh the opportunity. This is particularly true if one is 'the first woman' or 'the only woman' in a particularly role. Therefore, it becomes essential that women in administration be active mentors to others in our community.

Women are painfully aware of the impact of gender in positions of power. Even though most administrators (both men and women) are aware of the pitfalls in gender labeling, there are many examples of differences. For instance, a strong assertive male leader is respectfully known as the 'boss,' a woman with those same traits may be described with an altogether different label. Additionally, a man might be seen as goal directed, a woman as pushy; a man is described as passionate, a woman as over-emotional; a man is seen as a shrewd negotiator, a woman as conniving.

Among the challenges often mentioned for the woman administrator (particularly a novice), we might include:

  • understanding the unwritten 'rules' of the academic/campus culture
  • developing her communication skills
  • learning to use power and advocate for resources
  • grasping budget information and financial consequences of decisions.

There are additional dilemmas that particularly complicate roles for women leaders.

  • Balancing work and family. While family responsibilities influence the careers of all parents, women (particularly those with newborns and preschoolers) may have disproportionate work in care of children/home.
  • Taking work too seriously. Depending on personal style, this tendency may create problems for anyone. But it is possible that criticism directed at a woman leader may take a more personal tone than that for a man.
  • Difficulty finding a mentor. Particularly at the beginning of a new assignment, the administrator needs the guidance of a seasoned role model. Volumes have been written and spoken on the necessity of mentoring. We have all seen examples in which the lack of an appropriate mentor has had significant negative consequences.
  • Too little representation of women in administrative ranks. Depending upon the role and institution, a woman administrator may be one of such a small group that all her actions are scrutinized more than those of her male colleagues. In these cases a woman in administration may have no trusted person in whom to confide for the purpose of venting frustration.

Women in administration must seek out resources in a paradoxical environment. Trained in an academic discipline, our first natural inclination would be to learn by researching the topic. But there is a problem. While there is a wealth of leadership literature with parts tailored to women, there are few sources that address these issues for women in higher education administration, and virtually nothing specific to academic advising.

By focusing on concerns that may be unique to gender, there is no intent, to oversimplify. Further, there are circumstances in which many factors like race and ethnicity, religious choice, and sexual preference may affect the work environment for the administrator. Whatever the concern, the solutions can be the same. Colleagues provide these suggestions:

  • Write down your personal and professional priorities. Review these periodically to remind yourself of what is truly important.
  • Be diligent finding mentor(s). Don't limit your search only to someone like yourself or only to others in your field. Identify one or two trusted confidants on your campus (who may or may not be personal friends) that can serve as a sounding board.
  • Hook into a network for advice beyond your campus. In developing your network consider the resources NACADA makes available to support those who share our core values and common goals. These include:Presentations and workshops at national and regional meetings, as well as state drive-in conferences. These provide a chance to share information, build self-confidence and find rejuvenation.
  • The Winter Institute for Advising Administrators
  • Contacts made through sessions at the Summer Institute

To specifically assist women advising administrators in finding more information and guidance, we are developing a list of helpful leadership literature from both the popular press and scholarly references. The beginnings of this list is available on the NACADA web site through a link in the posting of this article within the Advising Resources of the Clearinghouse for Academic Advising. We need women administrators to suggest materials that have been useful in addressing these concerns. Send reference information to [email protected].

Understanding the needs of advising administrators is multifaceted. While the challenges faced by women administrators can be unique, the methods of addressing these challenges aren't. Exploring a variety of support opportunities can help all administrators find workable solutions.

Authored by: 

Alice G. Reinarz
Retired Associate Dean, Undergraduate Studies

Texas A&M University

Alice Reinarz is a past chair of the NACADA Advising Administrators Commission. Reach her at [email protected]

Print resources:

American Association of University Women Research Reports:

  • 2014: The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap
  • 2013: Women in Community Colleges: Access to Success
  • 2012: Graduating to a Pay Gap: The Earnings of Women and Men One Year after College Graduation
  • 2010: Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics

Adams, Scott. Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel. Harper Business (2002). 

  • This resource helps any administrator with one of the most essential of all administrative skills—retaining one’s sense of humor.

Advancing Women in Business—The Catalyst Guide: Best Practices from the Corporate Leaders. Jossey-Bass Business and Management Series (1998).

  • This reference draws on best practices of many companies to describe obstacles that stand in the way of female career advancement and how to remove them. Although information is drawn from the experience of women in the business arena, there are strategies relevant to women in education as well.

Bolman, Lee G. and Terrence E. Deal. Reframing Organizations (second edition). Jossey-Bass; San Francisco (1997). 

  • This book is written for managers. It describes theory and practice about organizations and leadership. It provides a framework to consider the opportunities and pitfalls in any organization. Although somewhat research-oriented in tone, the book has practical elements and the reader can certainly pick and choose among topics.

Duderstadt, James J. A University for the 21st Century. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor (2000). 

  • For any administrator, Duderstadt provides a comprehensive analysis of challenges and opportunities facing higher education in America. Spanning topics from resources to diversity to technology, this book provides perspective for administrative decisions. A former president of the University of Michigan, the author gives context for academic choices in the rapidly paced changing environment of the 21st century.

Kegan, Robert and Lisa Laskow Lahey. How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco (2001). 

  • These authors help all readers understand the gap between their intentions and their accomplishments (including career decisions). The book describes “languages” to implement life transformation with permanent, not transient, changes.

Lipman-Blumen, Jean. “Connective Leadership: Female Leadership Styles in the 21st Century Workplace” 

  • This paper describes a “connective leadership” model that combines the traditional masculine ego-ideal with additional female role behaviors more appropriate for an interdependent workplace. Achieving styles are described as the characteristic behaviors that individuals use to achieve their goals. Gender differences in achieving styles are reported and related to the connective leadership model.

Morrison, Ann M. The New Leaders. Leadership Diversity in America. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco (1992).

  • This book uses interviews with managers in private and public organizations to present a plan for helping them incorporate more women and men of color into leadership roles. Morrison is the author who brought the term “glass ceiling” into our vernacular, and she helps readers understand the organizational advantage of diversity with practical strategies to achieve it.

Organizational resources:

Leadership America
3005 Maple Avenue, Suite 605
Dallas, TX 75201
(214) 397-0900

  • A not-for-profit organization for women in all professional roles. Membership selection annually. Members and alums from all states in the USA. Connected with leadership organizations for women in many of the states. Provides professional skill building and networking.

Cite using APA style as:

Reinarz, A. G. (2002, December).Issues for women in higher education administration. The Academic Advising News, 25(4). Retrieved -insert today's date- from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:

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