Women presidents in the making

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Sue Hammersmith (Courtesy Photo)

Women constitute nearly 60 percent of the undergraduates and over 60 percent of the graduate students in America. Women also constitute the majority of graduates at the undergraduate, master’s and doctoral levels. Their educational achievement has outpaced that of men for the past 40 years, according to a recent report from the White House Project called Benchmarking Women’s Leadership in Academia. That difference exists across racial and ethnic groups. Yet women are noticeably underrepresented in the highest levels of educational leadership: Only 23 percent of America’s university presidents are women. 

Whatever your age or life situation, it’s never too late to finish your undergraduate degree, begin graduate school or return to college for intellectual or professional renewal. I would urge women to continue their vigorous pursuit of higher education. I also encourage women to make the same gains in educational leadership. 

Today’s students, whether age 20 or age 40, enjoy a much richer field of opportunity than I did when I started. As an undergraduate, I only had two female faculty. As a faculty member, I worked amid a cluster of men. As an administrator, I was often the only woman in the room. My role models and mentors were all men. 

Our women students today enjoy women faculty, deans, role models and mentors. They see women in leadership roles. Even fields like engineering, medicine and IT now include women leaders. 

We have many future women presidents in the making. As the Baby Boomers retire, we will see an era of great opportunity for women who aspire to leadership roles in higher education. For any aspiring women leaders in the academy I share some advice based on my experience. 

First, establish a sound academic foundation, but then build a rich experience base as other opportunities present themselves. Leadership skills are developed by participating, doing and solving problems in the real world, not in the land of theory. 

Second, systematically and intentionally network. Develop the range of contacts, resources and advisors you need to navigate increasingly complex dynamics and environments. Third, promote yourself psychologically. See yourself as the professional leader you can become. Ask for and take advantage of leadership and professional development opportunities. Look for opportunities to take on an interim appointment or a new initiative. Accept assignments you don’t know anything about. That’s how you learn to see the bigger picture and tie all the pieces together. 

By taking incremental, substantive career-development steps, you have every reason to aspire to being one of the future women presidents in higher education. Your students will be watching you. 

Sue K. Hammersmith is the president of Metropolitan State University, St. Paul. Tell us about a principle or practice of your leadership experience that might strike a chord with other women. Email your 450 word personal essay to editor@womenspress.com.