In today’s workplace, unconscious bias and invisible barriers embedded in company culture constrain opportunities for women, and higher education technology departments aren’t immune. Women are underrepresented in chief information officer positions, and their numbers have hovered between 21% and 28% for the past decade, according to Educause’s study on “The IT Workforce in Higher Education, 2019.”
Defining gender-based barriers
While conducting research on workplace gender barriers, I interviewed two higher ed CIOs. One discussed how she was regularly excluded from both formal meetings and informal events. When invited to meetings, it was often an afterthought with her male boss saying, “Oh, we forgot about you.” She also mentioned that she doesn’t golf with her male co-workers and those co-workers regularly discuss topics at work in which she has little interest, such as their cars.
This CIO described the loneliness of being excluded, noting that she doesn’t get the social interaction from her job that most men get. In addition, when she has talked to her boss about career goals, he has said, “Well, there’s nothing for you here.”
The other CIO described a different kind of barrier that women experience at her institution, which is related to not having their voices heard or supported. She said, “The women are consistently criticized for expressing any disagreement or dissent to what’s been decided or what’s been done, and it’s really at all levels, not just the senior level.”
In my subsequent research alongside Leanne Dzubinski at Biola University in California, we found that women leaders face at least 27 distinct gender-based barriers, such as exclusion, excessive scrutiny, unequal standards, lack of mentoring and sponsorship, male organizational cultures, workplace harassment, and work-life conflict. While some barriers, such as work-life conflict, may appear to be a personal issue, they are tied directly to work structures and norms that were created with men’s (but not necessarily women’s) lifestyles in mind. An example is an expectation for 24/7 availability. This can lead to pressure on individual women to accept inequities as justified and to find their own way to manage them. However, it’s not the women who need to change; what must change are organizational norms and assumptions that result in keeping women from advancing and making it difficult for those who are in leadership positions.
It’s not the women who need to change; what must change are organizational norms and assumptions that result in keeping women from advancing and making it difficult for those who are in leadership positions.
How can equity be attained?
College and university leaders must become educated on workplace gender bias, examine their cultures and work to change inequitable practices. Here are three strategies for moving forward.
- Consider how a culture in which everyone is expected to work long hours and be available extra hours may create work-life conflict that disproportionately affects female employees. Leaders should establish norms around working hours. Encourage everyone to not check email or work after hours except for emergencies. If there are projects or formal events that occur outside of normal workdays, require employees to take compensatory time off. This will allow women and men to have good work-life balance and set an equal playing field for women who may have caretaking responsibilities.
Ensure that women’s voices are heard and taken seriously. Communicate that workplace decisions are to take place only after consulting with all stakeholders, rather than occurring at informal social events. Train employees who lead meetings on effective meeting facilitation techniques to make sure all voices around the table are heard, considered and respected.
- Help women advance. This can be achieved by talking with them about their aspirations, offering professional development, connecting them with mentors, and sponsoring them for visible stretch assignments and promotional opportunities.
These are just a few examples of how workplaces can be made more equitable. Ignoring issues of gender bias means missing out on the full range of women’s input and perspectives. Equitable workplaces are environments in which women can thrive and use their talents to enhance an organization’s success.
Amy Diehl is associate vice president and chief information technology officer at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. She will be a featured speaker at UB Tech’s Women in Technology pre-conference, presenting on “Making the Invisible Visible: Recognizing Unconscious Gender Bias in the Workplace.”
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