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Print Editions Thursday September 28th, 2023

University’s female leadership a symbolic win, but practical results hazy

Administrators reflect on impact of gender on careers, recognize need for varied forms of diversity

This series will explore the first 1,000 days of Christina Paxson’s presidency. This story, the second of three, will look at how the University’s female leadership team represents, motivates and responds to students. 

Brown is the only Ivy League school where both the president and the provost, the two highest-ranking administrators for academic operations, are women. In fact, almost three-quarters of senior administrators are women.

Students and administrators appreciate female representation in university governance. But doubt lingers over whether President Christina Paxson’s P’19 administration will seize the opportunity to create more than a symbolic victory on gender issues, as well as whether it is properly equipped to handle issues affecting women of color.

‘A place you fit’

“My children are actually spaced eight years apart, and I call that the tenure gap,” Paxson said. “I had the first one before I got tenure, and I thought, I am never, never going to become tenured if I have another child right now. So I waited until I was promoted to full professor to have my second child.”

Provost Vicki Colvin said she waited until after getting tenure to start a family, having her children — who are now nine and 13 years old — relatively late in life.

None of the administrators interviewed said their gender has held them back, but some said exceptionally accommodating colleagues and family members have played a large role in their successful careers. A Brown department chair supported Dean of the College Maud Mandel when she had her first child while working in a non-tenure-track position without the benefit of formal parental leave policies, she said. Paxson said she has benefited from an “incredibly supportive” husband.

“I know there are women out there who do it on their own … but I’ve always had somebody who was really a partner,” Paxson said. “Over the course of our careers, we’ve shifted back and forth — who needs more time at work, who needs less time at work, and it’s worked really well. If somebody were to ask me how I was able to do what I’ve done and still have a family, it’s that.”

But speaking about whether more women colleagues make her more comfortable, Paxson said simply, “it doesn’t matter to me.”

But other administrators have had more varied experiences.

“While I didn’t face blatant discrimination or even obstacles,” underrepresentation of women “made it at times really difficult to have a voice and to be able to talk more freely about the challenges that women face in medical school,” said Liza Cariaga-Lo, vice president for academic development, diversity and inclusion, who began her career at Wake Forest University. “It limits the way in which you have an opportunity to speak up for various policies and practices that may inherently affect women more so than men.”

“There is a sense of being different” for women in male-dominated fields such as the sciences, said Colvin, a chemist, who said she “learned early on” to present herself differently. “I learned to smile less frequently. … When I was younger, I wore glasses to make myself appear older.”

These attempts to “fit in” and minimize the ostensible differences between herself and male colleagues produced a “certain level of stress,” Colvin added.

But Colvin said she wonders whether these changes actually affected others’ perceptions of her or merely how she saw herself.

The relatively large number of women leaders at Brown was an unexpected perk of coming to College Hill, Colvin said. “It’s probably the first time in my life I’ve walked into meetings and it’s all women, and there’s one guy,” she said.

Far from the stress of trying to fit into a male-dominated environment, “there are ways we have of interacting that are very familiar to me — that I don’t usually associate with the workplace environment,” she said. “I find it gives a certain level of comfort.”

Mandel echoed Colvin’s sentiments. “It feels like a place you fit — that this is a place you’re meant to be,” Mandel said, adding that as a result, “you’re going to be more comfortable sharing your ideas, pushing for your initiatives.”

Leadership styles

Some administrators rejected the idea of a universal female leadership style while still personally identifying with attitudes stereotypically associated with women leaders.

Colvin has struggled to see herself as a leader because she never identified with the stereotypically male “follow-me” archetype, she said.

“For me, leadership is … listening to a lot of different opinions and shaping conversations so that you collectively arrive at a vision that a lot of people buy into,” she said. “My version of leadership is definitely more collaborative, facilitative, adaptive.”

“I think that that’s a different style — perhaps it’s gendered, perhaps it’s not,” Colvin said.

“I like to work with groups. I like to work with teams. I tend not to be very hierarchical,” Paxson said. “It comes naturally to me.”

Studies have shown that women tend to adopt more collaborative leadership styles than men. A 2007 meta-analysis of hundreds of studies on leadership styles conducted by Alice Eagly, professor of psychology and management and organizations at Northwestern University, found that, on average, women are more democratic and invite more participation from other group members, while men take on a more controlling, top-down approach. But the differences the studies identified were generally small.

Gender differences are socially constructed, not innate, Mandel said. “As a woman, not surprisingly, I think about issues that affect women in a way that somebody who is not a woman wouldn’t,” she added, though not all women “think the same way.”

Nevertheless, administrators were reluctant or unable to identify ways that their personal experiences as women have affected their decision-making.

“I don’t know that it changes anything really global,” Colvin said of having women in leadership.

Turning representation into action

Colvin said the University should capitalize on its abundance of women leaders by using it as a starting point for campus-wide conversations on gender issues. “It’s an opportunity that we shouldn’t waste, and I think we should recognize that it’s kind of special.”

Yet it is an opportunity that has largely not been seized, several students said. Student activism, rather than administrative leadership, has been the driving force behind change on issues that affect women, they said.

Students have been critical of the administration for its treatment of sexual misconduct — an issue that is not directly a matter of gender equality but disproportionately affects female students and has been taken up by feminist groups on campus.

The Task Force on Sexual Assault has made significant progress, said Lauren Stewart ’15, a member of the task force, adding that the University has been taking policy reform seriously.

But the University’s recent handling of a sexual misconduct hearing and a hearing for a student accused of serving a drink containing a date-rape drug has been criticized by many students, including Stewart, who see the way the case was handled as a failure to enforce existing policy and an impetus for further policy reform.

Students also view administrative decision-making — not just concerning the two recent hearings, but on gender issues in general — as opaque.

Despite their appreciation of female leadership, students were cautious about lauding the administration too much. Representation of women is “a very baseline thing,” said Britta Potter ’18.

‘A symbolic force’

“Having women in leadership positions at Brown has definitely served as a symbolic force,” said Alice Hamblett ’17, one of the leaders of Feminists at Brown. “The most profound way (it has affected me) is just knowing that it’s there.”

“There are so few places in society where I can find women as leaders,” said Miriam Langmoen ’17, highlighting the benefits of having female leaders as role models.

Administrators also underscored the importance of seeing women in leadership roles.

Diversity “signals to other people, particularly younger people, that there is opportunity available for them,” Mandel said. “Young women coming up the pipe think, ‘I can do that.’”

“It must be nice … for students to be able to look at the people who are leading their institutions and say, ‘Gee, I can see myself there,’” Paxson said. That concept matters for race and ethnicity as well as gender, she said, adding that Brown has made more progress on gender than race.

“It’s great that there are women in high places in the administration, (but) we still need to represent the intersectionality and diversity of women at Brown and in the world,” said Jo’Nella Queen Ellerbe ’15.

Different perspectives

Indeed, not all female students feel represented by an administration that is overwhelmingly made up of women who are white, heterosexual and cisgender — a term that refers to those whose gender identity matches their sex at birth.

“Institutionally the University is not equipped to deal with issues that women of color face,” Queen Ellerbe said. “If you’re not a member of a community, you cannot necessarily know what that community is feeling.”

Support for women of color comes largely from student groups and individual faculty mentors, as well as centers such as the Brown Center for Students of Color, rather than broad institutional policies, Queen Ellerbe said.

“As a woman of color … I don’t feel that there’s institutional support,” she said, citing issues such as low faculty and staff representation of women of color as well as insufficient diversity training for incoming students.

The University should make more of an effort to seek out and hire women of color, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals, for faculty and administrative positions, several people said.

“It’s hard to talk about just gender” in isolation from other identities, said Gail Cohee, director of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center, adding, “It would be nice to see a more diverse group of women” in the administration.

At the recent “Cracking the Glass Ceiling” panel, which featured Paxson and three other current and former female university presidents, some students criticized the way white, heterosexual, cisgender narratives of womanhood dominated the discussion. All four women involved fit that description.

Though Cariaga-Lo said women’s leadership “does send a strong message that this is a place that no longer sees women at the margins,” she added that administrators must not become complacent with current successes and forget about the many areas where gender equality still needs improvement.

The perception that Brown is progressive may also diminish the urgency for improvement, Langmoen said. “It’s very easy both for administrators and for the wider community to become complacent.”

“We are collectively stronger for having a broad range of kinds of backgrounds helping to solve problems,” Mandel said. “People from diverse backgrounds bring diverse perspectives, and the more diverse perspectives you have, the likelier you’re going to come up with creative solutions that we haven’t thought of before.”

But the creativity on gender issues that one might expect of Paxson’s administration has yet to materialize fully in students’ eyes, which, coupled with a lack of racial diversity, leaves the University wanting in more ways than one.



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