Ann Bookman Barriers Women Face

The “Glass Ceiling” effect and the “Unconscious Bias” in the Selection Process are Among the Multiple Barriers Faced when Women Seek to be the President or the Board Chair of a College or University.

Women face multiple barriers when they seek to be the President or the Board Chair of a college or university. There are two particular barriers that bear examination:

(1) The “glass ceiling” effect, and (2) “Unconscious bias” in the selection process.

Let me briefly explain what these are and how they operate inside an institution.

Glass Ceiling
The term the “glass ceiling” first came into use in 1986 when two Wall Street Journal reporters coined the phrase to describe the invisible barrier that blocks women from the top jobs in corporate America.

The term was so widely used, and acknowledged to be true, that in the mid-1990s the federal government convened the Glass Ceiling Commission to document the extent of the problem. They found it was pervasive! They define the glass ceiling as “the unseen, yet un-breachable barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements.”

The “Women’s Power Gap in Higher Education: Study and Rankings” shows this has also been happening for years in the higher education sector, not just the corporate sector.

For example, on the faculty level, despite the fact that women are getting doctoral degrees in most fields at the same rate as men, women do not get promoted to Associate Professor or Full Professor at the same rate as their male peers. And this is exacerbated if you are a woman of color.

On the level of senior administrators, despite the fact that many women have become Deans and Provosts – gender parity has been reached in some school – it does not translate into gender parity at the level of president or Board chair. The number of women presidents is still low, especially at the doctoral-degree granting institutions.

The glass ceiling effect is a vivid description – an apt metaphor – for what qualified women and women of color bump up against when they apply to be president. But why?  This is where “unconscious bias” comes in – it explains one important piece of why can women not shatter the glass ceiling?

Unconscious Bias
Unconscious bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes about who should be a leader that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions, but in an unconscious manner.

In other words, when many people think of a college president, they think of a man, and usually a white man.  They may say that they want a diverse pool of applicants and are open to diverse candidates getting the top job, but when they actually vote to select some one from a short list, their unconscious images or ideas about the type of person that should fill that role lead them away for women and people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.

One interesting point from research on “unconscious bias,” is that it has been found to be far more prevalent than conscious prejudice, and – interestingly – is often incompatible with one’s conscious values about gender and racial equality.

Certain scenarios can activate unconscious attitudes and beliefs.  For example, let’s say a Presidential search committee member says, “What we really need for a new president is a ‘rainmaker,’ someone who is really good at raising money.”  Then everyone on the committee starts to conjure up their mental image of who that might be… some one who has a finance background, some one wealthy, a previous college president who led a successful capital campaign, and for many people they unconsciously think that people like that are men.

What is really interesting for our discussion today is that many U.S. universities are already providing training programs for faculty and administrators to “de-bias” decision makers – that is to make them aware of how their unconscious stereotypes are influencing their conscious behavior… and ultimately their votes on a presidential Search Committees.

Some of the most innovative higher educ. unconscious bias training programs are at:

  • University of California San Francisco
  • Northwestern University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Vanderbilt University

There are also good programs in some Massachusetts universities, such as MIT, UMass campuses, and Northeastern, to name a few.

So… in terms of needed intentional strategies to help us reach gender parity, let’s work to get more college universities to set up programs to “de-bias” key institutional decision makers, including both boards and high level administrators.

Ann Bookman
Director, Center of Women in Politics and Public Policy
University of Massachusetts Boston