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How are Women Perceived in the Search Process?

I recently served on a panel at a conference hosted by the University of California, Office of the President, “Women’s Leadership in Higher Education: Culture, Change, Courage.” I actually had one of those light bulb moments when I realized that most of the questions (and their answers!) for women in Higher Education are relevant to professional women in all fields. There is no doubt that gender impacts how we are perceived and how our actions are understood. Our panel talked about specific strengths female candidates bring to the search process. We also addressed the areas that may need improvement.

One thing that many women bring to the table is emotional intelligence. They are thoughtful in their methods and can often offer a kinder, gentler approach to getting the work done. I am reminded of something Mary Ellen Mazey said during her Presidential interview. Dr. Mazey told the search committee that if she were hired, her strategy would simply be one of “hitting the ground listening.” Mary Ellen is the visionary President of my graduate alma mater, Bowling Green State University. This approach has helped her to create a foundation for success, where progress, impact, and advancement of mission have been the cornerstones of her presidency.

I have found that women often undersell themselves, giving credit to others for success, and do not demonstrate the same levels of confidence men do. This can be good, as it demonstrates humility and a team orientation, but it must be balanced with the ability to confidently show your ability to lead. Certain positions in finance or information technology (CFO or CIO) are heavily dominated by men; women should really make sure they set themselves apart. Be you; being a woman sets you apart. Don’t try to fit in, instead show how you excel.

Finally, it is important to be aware of the double standards that people unintentionally have and adjust accordingly. I have had women talk about their family in an interview and this hurt them. On the other side, a man talks about their family and it’s endearing. There is a perception in the market that women are still caregivers and that their career is the one that takes a back seat if there is a dual career situation. One misconception is that you can have it all—this is simply and absolutely not true. Pick the time in your life when family is first and pick a time when career is first. Decide what your own priorities are before you try to talk about them with a potential new boss.

Again, there can be a double standard for men and women. While I am confident we are making progress, we still have work to do.


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