Women leaders face glass cliff

Women hold 22% of the top positions (president or chancellor) at doctoral-granting institutions in the United States and 15% of the vice-chancellor positions in the European Union. Rosabeth Moss Kanter once argued that when women attained ‘critical mass’ – meaning 30% of an organisation – they would have sufficient strength to change practices, policies and procedures.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

In politics, researchers have found that the more women there are in government, the more women-friendly are the policies, from family leave to access to reproductive healthcare. In business, the more women there are on corporate boards, the better firms’ profits, philanthropic giving and employee retention are.

What might universities learn from women’s transformative leadership in business and politics? Politics and business offer some lessons for women’s ability to enact far-reaching changes within their institutions and across the industry as a whole.

Lived experiences

First, and most importantly, women are not a homogenous group. They neither share preferences nor think and act alike simply because they share a gender. Women’s identities – and thus their attitudes and behaviours – are influenced by cross-cutting features such as class, race, sexuality, religion and age.

Yet women do share a common experience as a marginalised group. Women’s lived experience differs from men’s because of gender discrimination and role stereotyping and this difference influences women’s worldviews.

For instance, social science research demonstrates that female legislators – regardless of ideological leanings – talk more about policies’ effects on women, the poor, families, children and the disadvantaged. Women may disagree on the policy response, but their shared concern emerges from women’s lived experiences.

Second, women are outsiders. As women gain greater numerical representation in organisations and industries, their differing perspectives break longstanding patterns of ‘group think’.

Researchers have convincingly demonstrated that those in power reproduce themselves: they recruit and promote people who look and think like them. The persistence of these ‘old boys’ networks’ explains women’s under-representation in top leadership posts, from politics to the academy.

These networks also explain why organisations fail to change, or repeat their mistakes. Management research indicates that female directors on corporate boards steer firms towards less risky asset management.

Boards with female members exercise caution not because women are inherently more risk-averse than men, but because women’s outside perspective helps them question the practices, norms and rules that insiders have normalised. The research is clear: diverse groups deliberate more and thus perform better.

Women leaders in higher education

Applying these lessons to higher education suggests an association between women’s university leadership and broader institutional changes. Female administrators may be more likely to develop and implement policies that improve opportunities for and retention of female and minority students.

Women-led institutions might also outperform their peer institutions at tenuring and promoting female and minority faculty and they might innovate faster, staying ahead of the latest technologies and trends.

Yet the research also contains important notes of caution. Female leaders need buy-in from their constituents – in this case, trustees, donors, faculty, staff and students – but often faced entrenched resistance.

The same qualities that make women strong leaders also generate backlash: when women call attention to marginalised stakeholders and ask pointed questions, they violate gender-role expectations, rendering themselves more domineering and thus less ‘likeable’.

In addition, women’s entrance to previously male-dominated positions upsets institutions’ and industries’ traditional balances of power. Change may happen more quickly than the ‘old guard’ is prepared to accept.

Women have entered higher education administration precisely when the entire enterprise is under siege, at least in advanced industrialised democracies. Contracting public budgets, anxieties about student debt and preferences for job-readiness over the liberal arts have forced universities to defend their curriculum, their purpose – and their very existence.

Beware the glass cliff

At the same time, women’s representation in university leadership posts continues to grow.

During the 2013-14 academic year in the United States, women comprised 48% of new provosts and 42% of new deans. On the one hand, these figures reflect universities’ much-welcome efforts to help women break the glass ceiling of higher education administration.

On the other hand, female university leaders should beware the glass cliff.

The business world contains numerous examples of women being anointed to steer failing or discredited institutions, from Mary Barra of the General Motors Company in the United States to Fatma Samoura, newly-appointed secretary general of FIFA.

In politics, women often ascend to the post of president or prime minister in moments of crisis, conflict or instability. When catastrophe looms, talented men step aside. Well-positioned men know they will get another chance – they benefit from closed recruitment networks in ways women do not.

That women become selected to lead organisations in moments of crisis, when their outside perspectives and skills seem most needed, also often predicts their downfall. Across the globe, female heads of state average shorter terms in office when compared to their male counterparts, and not because they lack the qualifications and temperament for the job. They falter because the deck was stacked against them from the start.

The possibility of the glass cliff does not mean that university leaders should slow down their efforts to recruit and appoint women to the highest posts. Individual institutions and the industry as a whole will benefit when women’s full talent is realised.

Moreover, social science research indicates that female leaders have powerful symbolic effects: female university administrators will serve as role models for female students and female faculty, and will position their universities as champions of inclusion and diversity.

At the same time, stakeholders must adjust their expectations. No one leader, no matter how committed to promoting equity or thinking outside the box, can save higher education from economic or reputational collapse. Transformational leadership depends fundamentally on a favourable political and institutional context, one that everyone in the industry, both male and female, must actively construct.

Jennifer M Piscopo is assistant professor of politics at Occidental College, USA. With Susan Franceschet and Mona Lena Krook, she is editor of The Impact of Gender Quotas (Oxford University Press, 2012).