Women leaders breaking down the bias barrier and navigating impostor syndrome

April 15, 2019
  • AACRAO Annual Meeting
  • Competencies
  • Diversity and Inclusion
  • Leadership and Management
  • Meetings, Workshops, and Trainings
  • women
  • women's caucus
Female of color flexes biceps in a blue dress shirt

In two popular sessions at AACRAO 2019, attendees focused on issues facing women striving for in leadership roles on campus. 

Women Leaders: Navigating the Challenges of Imposter Syndrome, Bias, and Other Career Pitfalls
by Nancy Walsh, Director of Admissions Operations, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 

Women's work and impostor syndrome. Ewa Nowicki from Amherst College started the discussion by mentioning some of the workplace tasks that typically fall to women, such as party planning and cleaning the microwave, garnering quite a few nods in the audience. She then went on to examine impostor syndrome and tips for combating it. Many women leaders suffer from impostor syndrome as they start to doubt themselves and their abilities, feel a sense of intellectual fraudulence and are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Some of the tips that she offered to combat this were monitoring your own self-talk, remembering your own worth to the organization, connect with a common community, be kind to yourself and visualize success. Nowicki concluded her talk by emphasizing executive presence and encouraged women leaders to practice it. Look people in the eye, be present and prepared at meetings and dress the part, look powerful. 

Emotional labor. Erin Mason from University of Connecticut focused her part of the session on emotional labor, which is the act of displaying emotion that is consistent with the implicit set of rules that govern the workplace. Or, more simply stated – how to moderate your emotions in the workplace.  Since women are socialized to be mindful and responsible for other people's emotions in the workplace, they engage in emotional labor at higher rates. This can lead to emotional exhaustion and result in workplace burnout. Mason did point out, though, that emotion is often needed in our types of jobs when dealing with delicate student situations, but figuring out the level of emotion to use and when to use it can require a great deal of effort.  

Glass ceiling. Bianca Thompson-Owen from Rutgers Biomedical & Health Sciences discussed the infamous glass ceiling and how to remove barriers for women seeking to become leaders. She indicated that women may not be able to smash through the glass ceiling at one time, but need to continue to chisel away at it. Some of the tips mentioned during her talk included supporting and echoing other professional women, look for training opportunities, strive for diverse applicant pools and nominate fellow women for leadership positions. Thompson-Owen also discussed the importance of mentorship for career development and reminded attendees that self-promotion is not bragging and that women often get too caught up in self-doubt that we need to remind ourselves that we are enough. 

Confidence and conflict. Margo Landy from University of the Pacific concluded the session by discussing her three main workplace challenges – not feeling like a leader, dealing with conflict and lacking confidence in decisions. She also reflected that she wasn’t sure if these were a factor of being a woman or just her personality as a human. She feels that she has improved her leadership skills by focusing on accomplishing collective goals. Landy suggested that the best ways to handle conflict are through communication and making sure the conclusion is in alignment with institutional strategy. Her tips to increase confidence included taking it slowly, allow yourself time to build credibility within yourself just as you do with others, and being able to fully explain unpopular decisions. 

Breaking Down the Bias Barrier: Developing Leadership Skills for Women 
by AACRAO Staff

In this session, Nowicki and Laura Remillard, Associate Director of Graduate Admissions at Stanford University, offered suggestions for increasing leadership among women in higher education. 

Nowicki said one of the reasons she was inspired to present this session was because according to the 2018 Registrar’s Career Profile report, zero women responded that they hold leadership roles at institutions in the very top, upper division institutions with graduate schools.   

“Each of us can do something to be a part of the change,” Nowicki said, including taking the following into consideration:

Identify bias. 
Bias is an error in evaluating someone’s performance, potential or skill, Nowicki said. It is important to be aware that feedback given to women often differs from feedback given to men. Studies show that bias and stereotypes can influence how managers make decisions and influences hiring. Bias happens when criteria for decision making is ambiguous and vague, an environment is male-oriented, and there’s high level of managerial discretion (without third party input). 

Acknowledge privilege.
When we are born into a facet of our identity that the world has been set up to accommodate. Unearned advantages come along with this trait/identity with or without our knowledge. 

Recognize imposter syndrome.
 Feeling of inadequacy is fueled by gender bias. To combat this, Nowicki said, women should track what triggers this feeling. “Remember our worth to our institutions,” Nowicki added. “Another other important part of dealing with this issue is to communicate….and visualize your success.”

Forge an identity.
 Understand the “tripartite model of identity,” which looks at identity on an individual level (that is unique to us), a group level (which includes similarities and differences among people), and a universal level (human commonalities). 

Some organizational solutions the presenters offered include: 

  • Be educated on bias (increase awareness to reduce reliance on stereotypes).
  • Carefully craft job description during job searches and have diverse pool of women candidates.
  • Establish clear criteria in advance of making decisions (hold decision makers and yourself accountable. Explain decision about people to others, be transparent, and track progress).
  • Vouch for competence of all women, especially women in typically underrepresented groups. 

Some solutions for individual women included: 

  • Learn to say no to emotional labor and office housekeeping (share responsibilities)
  • Take time to know your own history
  • Professional development, build your skills and document your achievements
  • Check your own privilege and bias
  • Ask others how you can be an effective ally at work
  • Map your network and work relationships 



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