Consider the following scenarios, some of which you may have experienced:
1) During a faculty meeting, a colleague shares an idea but it is ignored and participants move on to another topic. Later in the meeting, someone else restates or expresses a similar idea and, this time, further discussion ensues. As the meeting concludes, the group adopts the idea without any acknowledgement or credit of the original contributor.
2) During a committee discussion, a colleague proposes a solution to a campus problem. The presiding committee chair replies, “We’ve tried that before,” and effectively shuts down additional contributions from that individual.
3) An invitation to join a strategic committee excludes someone with an administrative role relevant to the committee task. When asked about this omission, a campus leader states: “The committee is already too large.”
Situations in which a colleague is ignored, dismissed, or excluded, can be awkward, off-putting, or painful—especially when they occur in public settings and result in diminished perceptions of an individual. Women and women of color are more likely to experience these situations and they may have negative repercussions for their career development. Beyond the impact on the affected individual, our institutions may be deprived of valuable ideas and the benefits of an individual’s talents, experiences, and contributions.
Input from all faculty and staff is necessary to create, implement, and sustain innovative change in higher education. Our institutions benefit from broad engagement, especially from people who have been historically underrepresented in academic leadership. There is much discussion of inclusion, and this term is used freely, but how do leaders respond to situations in which a colleague or her comments, ideas, or suggestions are subtly ignored, dismissed, passed-over or attributed to others?
Since administrative leaders have the positional power to act in situations when others are hesitant or reluctant to intervene, they should be prepared to support actively individuals who are ignored, criticized or excluded. It is not enough for colleagues to be smart, have confidence, and work hard to attain success: affirming contexts and nurturing relationships are also critical elements necessary for success and these must be created and sustained.
Research from the world of business highlights the importance of supervisors, mentors, and advisors, who actively make it their business to help women, and women of color, persist and succeed in the workplace. In addition to the individual attributes of talent and resilience, we cannot over emphasize the direct support of leaders and the importance of personal relationships.
What can be done? Here are four steps you can take to support your colleagues:
Intervene: As a leader, you should learn to recognize and watch for the occurrence of situations such as those described above, and intervene to mitigate their negative effects. Failure to act or failure to act quickly reinforces the power dynamics that keep individuals from attaining the respect and recognition necessary for professional advancement.
Connect: Provide opportunities to meet individuals who are decision makers at your institution or national organizations. Invite them to attend a meeting in your place, or as your guest to a high-level committee meeting, for example. Let decision makers know that the institution is confident in their abilities and invested in their success and advancement.
Compliment: Acknowledge the work of your colleagues in meetings and other public venues and communications. In front of other administrators, talk about results they have attained and successful ideas they have contributed. Actively look for these opportunities.
Communicate: Think broadly about the people you include in email communications and meeting invitations. Directly solicit input from colleagues, keep everyone in the loop, and model transparency in all decision-making.
In summary, administrative leaders should take supportive actions to cultivate the leadership potential and professional growth of faculty and staff. They need to address negative situations that diminish an individual’s ability to succeed when they occur. Other reinforcing measures must be taken to significantly impact the persistence, retention, and promotion of our colleagues—particularly women and women of color.
Roberts, Laura Morgan, et al. “Beating the Odds.” Harvard Business Review, 2018, pp. 126–131.