Women Higher Education Administrators: Approaches to Leadership in Times of Crisis

Women Higher Education Administrators: Approaches to Leadership in Times of Crisis

Tenisha L. Tevis (Oregon State University, USA), Meghan Pifer (University of Louisville, USA), and Vicki L. Baker (Albion College, USA)
Copyright: © 2021 |Pages: 19
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-6491-2.ch003
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In the multiple crises of 2020, a common narrative emerged about the effectiveness of women leaders in responding at the local, national, and international levels. Their behaviors suggested a reliance on adaptation. As microcosms of the social structures in which they exist, postsecondary institutions are not exempt from the task of leadership through crises; however, little is known about women leaders in higher education administration in times of crisis. Though having the ability to adapt has shown to be paramount for organizational success and thriving, it is virtually unknown whether women higher education leaders take an adaptive approach during crises. Thus, the authors went beyond recent headlines to understand women higher education leaders in contexts riddled with crises. Findings provide illustrative evidence of the six tenets of adaptive leadership to inform practice and future research.
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The year 2020 brought crises in health, economy, government, education, and social justice with effects scaling from the local citizen to the global community. One emerging narrative centers on the role of women leaders in responding to crises at the local, national, and international levels. Political leaders such as Nancy Pelosi, Jacinda Ardern, and Angela Merkel have been highlighted not just for their work, but for their work as women (Friedman, 2020; Taub, 2020; Tumulty, 2020; Wittenberg-Cox, 2020). Media headlines such as “Why are women-led nations doing better with COVID-19?” (Taub, 2020), “Are women leaders better at fighting coronavirus? It’s complicated” (North, 2020), and “Research: Women are better leaders during a crisis” (Zenger & Folkman, 2020) show the prominence of gender and leadership considerations in coverage of crisis responses.

As this chapter examines the experiences and behaviors of women leaders in higher education administration, there is a salience and timeliness to the examples provided by women global leaders. Their behaviors suggested a reliance on adaptation—a willingness to anticipate and respond to short- and long-term needs in times of crisis. These approaches can be seen in response to both the more technical leadership challenges (e.g., establishing public health mandates to minimize risk) and the adaptive challenges for which there are no known or immediate solutions, but which require the engagement of followers to find a solution (e.g., minimizing fear and discord in times of risk, frustration, and inequity). A review of the literature identified adaptive leadership as a theory that would direct the research efforts of this chapter.

The emerging narrative about women leaders in times of crisis emphasizes a merging of skills and competencies, a reliance on differing viewpoints working toward a collective goal, and an ability and willingness to adapt quickly as new knowledge surfaces. Adaption is paramount to organizational success and thriving (Heifetz & Laurie, 1997). There is no research as of yet that has explored whether women take an adaptive approach in their leadership, particularly in times of crisis. Recent comparisons between men’s and women’s leadership undergird the elevation of women as effective leaders in crises due to the perceived utility of leadership traits typically ascribed to women in challenging circumstances. Specifically, researchers have suggested that women leaders are more task-oriented and transformational in relation to counterparts who are men (Eagly & Carli, 2007; Stott, 2013; Winters, 2012). The need to shift, if not change, amidst uncertainty and distress, warrants a more in-depth inquiry into women’s leadership in times of crisis. Particularly, research about whether adaptive leadership in challenging times contributes to women’s effectiveness would be of value.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Adaptive Leadership: A leadership style that takes into consideration the ever-evolving landscape and adopts flexible strategies to mitigate negative outcomes.

Women Leaders: Those individuals who identify as a woman and are in a position to lead an organization.

Crisis: A negative event that has the potential to jeopardize the stability of an organization.

Leadership: The ability to influence people and organizations.

Higher Education Administration: A field of research and professional practice; an organizing concept to acknowledge employees responsible for the day-to-day functioning of a college, university, or system.

Colleges and Universities: Postsecondary institutions representing a range of types, sizes, and missions.

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