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Women’s success in academic leadership can and should be robust, not fragile

Carte Blanche for Janet Hering, director of EAWAG

17.10.2022 – Women’s success in academic leadership challenges stereotypes and is subject to backlash and resistance. Success rests on individual effort and accomplishment but also reflects alignment with the academic power system and support from others. Appreciation of the systemic and collective aspects of success is essential for women’s success to be robust.

Carte Blanche / Janet Hering
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The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the position of SCNAT.

When can we call a woman ‘successful’?

While it is a success to achieve a position of academic leadership, that success is compromised when a leader leaves her position prematurely or involuntarily or fails to accomplish her most important goals. The term ‘glass cliff’ describes the observation that women (or minorities) are offered leadership opportunities in situations where success is very likely to be fragile. Historical cases, such as the short tenure of Prof. Denise Denton as Chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz and its tragic conclusion, illustrate the intense hostility that can be directed toward women in positions of academic leadership. Recent and highly-publicized reports of women’s deficits in academic leadership have raised questions of gender bias and discrimination in the reporting on such cases and in the institutional, systemic support that is essential for individual success in leadership. Women in positions of academic leadership should be aware that success can be fleeting and solutions can be fragile.

Success in context

It does not detract from individual effort and accomplishment to understand the context and system in which individual success is achieved. Systemic factors influence success for both men and women. Women, however, must achieve success within academic systems that have been shaped by stereotypical and gender-biased expectations. For example, the exclusivity of academic success and the strong focus on a single individual as the leader of a research group align poorly with the association of women with communal (rather than agentic) traits. Since these norms favor the advancement of men, women (and minorities) must pay more attention to systemic and institutional factors that can impede or compromise success.

A way forward

To achieve robust success in academic leadership, women need to formulate our own leadership goals clearly and understand their potential for implementation within the academic system. In a recent blog post, I have posed eight questions to women embarking on academic leadership: (1) what do you want to accomplish in your leadership position? (2) what constraints will you have to deal with? (3) what resources will you have at your disposal? (4) what trade-offs will you make to accommodate your new responsibilities? (5) who will you be able to depend on for advice and support? (6) what are the leverage points for change in your organization? (7) how is information shared in your organization? and (8) what are the formal and informal power structures in your organization?

I am also personally convinced that robust success for women in academic leadership will require that we go beyond individual solutions. As the feminist Carol Hanisch wrote, “There are no personal solutions... There is only collective action for a collective solution.” Women in academics share many of the concerns that have been expressed by early career researchers and have also been actively engaged in various initiatives to make the academic system more inclusive, supportive, and sustainable. Increasing gender diversity has been shown to produce more novel and higher-impact scientific ideas. I believe that diversifying academic leadership will be critical to ensuring the future success of the academic enterprise.

This text is adapted from input to the webinar “I did it! Experiences from leading scientists” (webinar #8 in the series “Achieving Gender Equality and Diversity in the Natural Sciences”). See the recording of the webinar

For an English version of this text with references, see link.


Janet Hering is the Director of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science & Technology (Eawag), Professor of Environmental Biogeochemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich (ETHZ) and Professor of Environmental Chemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne (EPFL).


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