Women leaders breaking down the bias barrier and navigating impostor syndrome

Apr 15, 2019, 13:09 PM
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Summary : Common challenges, as well as considerations and solutions, from two AACRAO 2019 sessions.
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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 

AACRAO Women's Caucus

AACRAO LEAD Initiative 
The Leaders in Enrollment Advancing Diversity project takes a multi-pronged approach at identifying and preparing a diverse group of enrollment leaders to take on leadership roles in Enrollment Management in North America and across the globe.
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    Steven E. Smith, University Registrar, Adelphi University

    Steven Smith CCAACRAO's LGBTQIA Caucus holds a very special place in my heart. I spent my early years in the closet and at my first Annual Meeting, I walked past the Caucus meeting three times but couldn't gather the courage to walk in. I timidly took that step at my second conference and my life changed forever; attending that Caucus meeting was the first public thing I ever did as a gay person. The people I met that day are now some of the best friends I have, in fact, years later one of them flew half-way across the country to attend my wedding!  

    Joining the Caucus gave me the courage to come out at home and work. It has connected me with some fabulous colleagues whom I contact regularly by phone, email, and social media. It has informed me about many issues that I thought I knew well, but realized I had more to learn. The three-year stint that I served as chair is one of my fondest memories. The LGBTQIA Caucus has been an important part of my life and I encourage those who identify with any of those letters (including the "A" allies!) to be a part of this important group. 


    Carrie Cuy, Assistant Registrar, Harvard University Division of Continuing Education

    Carrie Cuy CCDiscovering the LGBTQIA caucus was a highlight for me during AACRAO’s 2019 Annual Meeting in Los Angeles.


    As a new member, I found the caucus to be a welcoming and friendly group of higher education colleagues. I look forward to participating in future AACRAO and caucus events and fostering a supportive environment for knowledge sharing and professional development in our field.

    Michael N. Robertson, Director of Admissions & Enrollment Services, Southern College of Optometry

    Mike Robertson CC
    When a small group of us helped found the LGBTQ Caucus many years ago, one of our main goals was to simply give “folks like us” a place where we could be ourselves  and share common goals, issues and concerns.  Now, we’ve evolved into a strong group whose added goal of educating our constituency about LGBTQ issues on campuses has made differences at colleges around the world.  The caucus has made me proud of AACRAO and has helped make me a better administrator.  For that, I will always be grateful.

    Stephen Arod Shirreffs, Ph.D., Associate Registrar, Stanford University

    Stephen Arod Shirreffs CC
    I'm in the LGBTQIA caucus because I think visibility is a core value as an engaged gay man and as an engaged AACRAO member. I've been involved in the gay movement since the early 70s, the heady days of gay liberation. Now, as our profession as well as our campuses are more diverse than ever, being "out there" says it loud and proud that we all belong and everyone is welcome. As AACRAO advocates for the issues that are critical to our jobs, having the public backing of our caucus is important work, and I want to be part of it.

    Allen Corben, Assistant Registrar/Graduation Services, Fuller Theological Seminary 

    Allen Corben CCI'm in the LGBTQIA caucus because because none of us are free unless all of us are free.




Mission Statement

AACRAO's LGBTQIA Caucus strives to work for LGBTQIA rights, and educate other higher education professionals so they are able to serve their students with an understanding of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

The Caucus welcomes any AACRAO member willing to advance LGBTQIA rights, regardless of sexual identity or orientation. 


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Paul McCarty CC

Paul C. McCarty, Registrar | Washington College

Holly Halmo CC

Holly Halmo, Director of Student Success Initiatives | New York University
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