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Women Leaders in Higher Education: Context, Challenge, and Courage

December 30, 1899


​The academic year is fully underway and, though any semblance of summer seems like a distant memory, I find myself reflecting on significant experiences that took place when the pace on campus was different from the current frenzy. A highlight for me was in late June when I served as an invited guest speaker and participant in an international conference in Bonn, Germany, titled, “Female Leadership and Higher Education Management in Developing Countries.” Sponsored by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the German Rectors’ Conference (HRK), and organized in the framework of the Dialogue on Innovative Higher Education Strategies (DIES) Programme, the emphasis was on encouraging an international exchange of experience on questions of innovative higher education policy.

Gathered together were approximately 150 people, predominantly women—and some men—from over 35 countries to take stock of the current situation in higher education leadership in developing and industrialized countries; share and discuss best practices for enhancing women’s leadership and development; identify measures that could be integrated into future DAAS/DIES programming; and create an international network. As the only American on the program, I was in the unique position of sharing my insights and experiences, and also becoming enlightened on the realities faced by women from around the globe.

I was reminded of the importance of context, the significant challenges that women face, and the courage of our sisters—especially those in international colleges and universities. Whereas in the Minnesota State System over the past five years we have increased the percentage of women presidents to nearly 50 percent of the presidents who serve in our two and four-year institutions, such is not the case elsewhere. Colleagues from other continents shared firsthand accounts of the effects of patriarchal structures and role conflicts; of glass ceilings that keep highly qualified women from moving to senior positions; of women being treated differently from men; of women leaders being questioned and harassed more than men; and of structural barriers and discrimination that are so deeply imbedded that many do not even realize they are being treated unfairly.

I was inspired by personal stories of courage and compassion, as speakers and participants described intentional efforts and programs to increase access to education for females, especially in rural areas and underserved communities. I was struck by the number of gender studies programs in universities in Africa, for example—programs that carry the responsibility for sharing the pedagogy of gender-related courses and for coordinating mentorship programs that support women at all levels. I was reminded of the importance of clearly stated policy and of holding our leaders accountable for results. The significance of networking activities, mentoring programs, and supporting women cannot be overstated.

In an article about the conference, originally published on DAAD Aktuell, Elena Witzeck asserts that we don’t need to change women; instead, we need to change the system. She reminds us that despite differences in cultures and contexts, or in scale and scope, similar problems exist around the world. At the same time, I would add that there is reason to be encouraged by the shared commitment to empowering women and making a difference in the leadership of higher education institutions, especially in developing countries.

And, even if we were not fortunate enough to be at this international conference, we can all find inspiration from the courage and commitment of our sisters and brothers around the world who are focused on this important work. The question for each of us now is what will we do to help advance these efforts, and what is our role? How will each of us identify, develop, and support the advancement of women leaders in the United States and abroad? 

Connie Gores headshot

​Connie J. Gores
President, Southwest Minnesota State University

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