“Is It a Choice?” by Dr. Lynn M. Gangone

I am part of a national research study looking at college and university presidents-who happen to be women-and any number of factors associated with their capacities to secure presidencies and keep them. Since still only 23% of college and university presidencies are occupied by women (yes, that means 77% of the college and university presidents are men), and that percentage of women presidents has not changed in over 10 years, well, some of us (including me) think that lack of women in the senior role is a problem. I am intrigued by the answers I am getting to the questions our research team is asking, and one of those questions forms the basis for this blog today.

One of the questions of the study essentially asks about a stereotype that exists in our society-that women are not in senior leadership roles because they choose to limit their own advancement. I am continually struck by the answers given to this question, and it is this question that I want us to ponder-is it a choice? As you work with 18-22 year old women as student affairs practitioners, I am sure you listen carefully to what our women students are saying, and how they are viewing their choices as they move from an undergraduate education into the wider world. In this year, the 40th anniversary of Title IX, I am sure the possibilities for our women students seem limitless. Yet that burning question of choice rears up soon after graduation, for as women’s capacity for success and advancement increases, the time she has for “choosing” to have children begins to decrease. Is this really a fair choice? And why does the responsibility for that “choice” still remain (predominantly) the responsibility of women?

As I spoke to a group of sorority sisters the other evening at the University of Denver, I posed this conundrum to them, this question of “is it a choice?” and I asked if they saw things changing for them and the men with whom they engaged. A collective peal of nervous laughter went through the room, and then hands began to be raised. The women spoke of their parents-moms who had careers, dads who were “stay at home.” One woman recounted that her school teachers continually asked her to bring homework back to her mom and she, with a “stay at home” dad, was confused and thought she would get in trouble if she did not give her homework to her mom and had to ask-”is it okay if I give it to my dad instead?” We talked about the structure of work, still very much predicated on an old industrial model of Monday through Friday, 9 am-5 pm (if one is lucky to have their job limited to those hours), and how work structure needs to be changed in order to facilitate both men and women fully participating in their families. Another said her male friends are actually excited to think about raising children.

Yet, as I look around at my colleagues who are senior leaders, there still are not a lot of ways in which the family/career choice has been easily resolved. Yes, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook tells us we can do it all-but she does it all with the privilege of income that allows her the capacity to have a fabulous career and a fabulous family. I would argue that not all of my contemporaries have had the same options to “have it all” and I ask-will all of our students have the same option? I don’t know the answer to the question I’ve posed-is it a choice? I know that for each and every one of us women leaders in higher education-and in other sectors-the choice is ours to make, with the best set of information and inclinations we have at the time we are choosing. I just wish the “choice” were still not as “black and white,” and that the “choice” was shared by men and women alike. I wish we just did not assume that the woman is always the caretaker (like the teacher who asked for the homework to be shared with the mom), and that the man is not engaged in the lives of his children.

I will leave you with three more questions. First, how do you continue to perpetuate stereotypes about the roles of men and women in our society, and how will you increase your awareness to not assume that all women-or all men-are limited by their biology? Second, what will you do to advocate for change that allows all of us to pursue whole lives that do not force women into the false dichotomy of “choice” between work and family? And finally, I ask you to consider what you need to do now to position yourself for a senior leadership role in higher education? All the data shows that we need a critical mass of women in deanships, vice presidencies, presidencies, and board roles, so that women can partner with men of good will to see women represented fully in the leadership of our institutions.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to ““Is It a Choice?” by Dr. Lynn M. Gangone

  1. Thank you for writing this. I study inequity in educational environments and am tired of the rhetoric that suggests we don’t have women presidents because women don’t want to be president!

  2. Jane Tuttle

    I’ve often thought that the women’s movement of the 70’s has improved men’s life considerably. It is now acceptable for men to leave work early to coach the soccer team or for the man to stay home with a sick child. That certainly wasn’t acceptable in the “Mad Men” area and beyond. Yet, that same movement has made it more difficult for young professional women and college age women: they are told they can have it all and no one tells them “but not at once.”

    As I look at my peers (women in their 50’s) who had full time careers for their entire career, many only have one child. I do not think that is a coincident; rather, it was a conscious choice on most of their parts. As you so aptly point out, only those women who have the financial compensation to afford full time help can have it all at once and even then I wonder if they do. I’m not her; so, I’ll never know.

    I look at the current Hilary Rosen controversy and wonder what do today’s young women think about that. You’ve posed an interesting question and one that does not have a clear answer for me nor is it dichotomy false for me. Life is full of choices and few of us (male or female) can have it all at once. It is a choice and not a pretty one.

    .

  3. Lynn,
    Thank you so much for sharing your insights with WISA. As you know I am very interested in women’s leadership in academia and on my first class in the doctoral program we were asked to go around the room and identify our research topic.

    When I shared that I was interested in studying the challenges that women face on the road to the college presidency, one classmate looked at me in disbelief and asked “What do you mean? There is a simple answer for that.” Baffled, I asked him to elaborate. He said “Women aren’t presidents because its too hard to try to balance family and work. That’s why the numbers are so low.”

    As an apsiring President (maybe one day??) we must do more to understand the lack of advancement opportunities for women. I personally do not believe that women want to limit their career trajectory. It is the politics of academia, traditional notions about leadership, lack of access to mentors and sponsors and a lack of women on Boards of Trustees that are contributing to this dearth of women at the top.

    Thanks for continuing the conversation. We all must be invested in this work!

    • Ann Marie, you make very, very good points. From attitudes and presumptions, from lack of critical mass of women in senior leadership roles, and university and college boards ultimately responsible for the hiring of the president, there are still many challenges (and opportunities too-I am an eternal optimist!) for women seeking the presidency. I am still amazed that in these times of turbulence more search committees and boards are NOT seeking less traditional candidates for the presidency; it seems as though there’s a bit of a retrenchment to hiring candidates with the “classic” track to the presidency-through tenured professorships to the VPAA/provost line. While that is a quite legitimate track, it is not the only way to build a portfolio necessary to lead the 21st century institution with all its complexities. While many women and women/men of color do follow the “traditional” track to the presidency, there are many of us with less conventional paths (myself included) prepared to take on the leadership role of the presidency. Women and men who wish to see the presidency diversified in its composition (gender, race, ethnicity, etc.) have a lot of work to do!

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