Lessons from the Field: Feminist Supervision

by Heather Shea Gasser

This entry was modified from the original post on heathersheagasser.com

Very early on in my career in student affairs I had a really terrible supervisor (who will remain nameless). He was a “good ole’ boy” in the purest sense, catering not to his staff but to the upper administration (nearly all men) at the college. He undermined my role as the primary advisor to a group of students frequently: sometimes he provided only lukewarm support of my decisions and other times he blatantly advised students to take a course of action in direct opposition to my previous advisement. It probably comes as no shock that I moved on from that position as quickly as possible. There is nothing worse than having an unsupportive and hierarchical supervisor.

Supervision in student affairs comes in all shades. Some supervisors are as developmental and intentional in supervising their staff as they are in working with undergraduate students, applying lessons of Sanford’s “challenge and support” in every context (maybe inappropriately at times).Some supervisors are authoritarian and directive, fearful that their supervisee’s mistakes will reflect badly on themselves. Some are so concerned about staff liking them that they sacrifice effectiveness. Some bring their feminist philosophy into the context of supervision resulting in transparency that borders on inappropriate sharing.

I have been all of these supervisors.

When I first arrived as the director of a women’s center in 2008, I inherited two full-time program coordinators, a temporary administrative assistant, a full-time AmeriCorps member, and several student staff members.  I had worked with student employees and supervised graduate students, but never before had I supervised other full time student affairs professionals, nor had I ever supervised staff who were older in age than me (and all of the other staff were older than me at the date of my hire). That being said, I obviously made some novice supervisor mistakes. I took negative feedback personally because I wanted to be “liked” by my staff. I attempted various approaches in order to “figure out what worked” but came across looking inconsistent. I worked too hard to demonstrate my own competence and only to unintentionally set up unrealistic expectations. I can reflect now upon those experiences and consider my actions as learning opportunities. But at the time, I agonized about the best course of action in these situations, often second-guessing myself. Today I remain thankful to my partner, my own supervisor at the time, and to the university ombuds who all provided listening ears and allowed me to frequently debrief as I learned many lessons about supervision. We could fill an entire blog about “what I didn’t learn in graduate school” but for now suffice it to say I don’t recall the nuances of supervision of other professional staff on the syllabus. Nor do I remember learning about the gendered expectations of supervisors.

Socially constructed gender roles dictate that women are supposed to be nurturing and caring. Often, women enter supervisory relationships with other women with pre-conceived expectations that a woman supervisor will be “on their side” and universally understanding and forgiving when all sorts of circumstances arise. If we’re honest with ourselves, we may expect this type of care and understanding (a “friendship” style) from women when we wouldn’t have the same expectations of a male supervisor. Over the course of my career, I’ve enjoyed being supervised by women who definitely engaged in a “friendship” supervision style. But, again if I’m honest, these individuals were light on challenging me and I’m not sure that I grew much as a professional. Other supervisors (both women and men) who kept the “friendship” out of our supervisory relationship, challenged me and assisted my growth in direct and measurable ways.   Clarifying these expectations, being clear that accountability and challenge are part of the role supervisors play, and counteracting the gendered assumptions we make about supervision with one’s supervisor or employee are critical lessons I’ve learned both as a supervisor and as an employee.

And, supervision within a feminist context comes with an additional challenges. As I’ve written about in terms of organizational structure, feminist organizations that exist within a larger (hierarchical) university context can be additionally challenging. The institution’s expectations of supervisors and department heads often come into conflict with feminist values. The supervisor’s role in holding individual staff members accountable through performance appraisals, the communication mechanism (often top-down messages delivered vis-a-vis meetings to which only the director is invited), as well as the requirements of quick and (sometimes) opaque decision-making all butt up against feminist values. Feminist values favor group accountability, transparent communication, and collective decision-making. How one navigates this challenging paradox is critical in terms of values congruence. As a feminist, I often felt pulled in two different directions. And, as Sara Hinkle wrote, it is lonely at the top. My feminist ethic wasn’t something I could check at the door and put aside. Keeping a broader feminist intent in mind and to speak openly about the dilemma (both at the tables where I was being told to keep information private) as well as at other members of the staff may have been an insufficient explanation for the seemingly incongruent action. I learned (many times over) that paramount in all supervisory relationship and in leadership in general is trust that others are doing the right thing and have our best interests in mind.

Overall, after making these mistakes (no one is perfect!), deconstructing the circumstances that didn’t go well, learning valuable lessons, and now having moved on, I am grateful for the opportunity to serve as a supervisor and test my feminist values in this context. Challenging, indeed, but definitely rewarding as well. Seeing my former staff members move on to new challenges both within and beyond the department and witnessing their professional development, graduations/degree attainments, as well as the growth in their confidence, was just as rewarding as watching students do the same. And, I’m grateful that other supervisors operate with feminist goals in mind. I am now very fortunate to have a fantastic feminist supervisor in my new role. I experience high levels of autonomy, open and transparent communication, and am asked for and openly provide input.

Perhaps this post has raised more questions than it has answered. I’m interested in continuing the conversation. How has your supervision style changed during your career? What challenges have you faced in supervising professional staff? What advice do you have for someone trying to integrate feminist values into supervision?



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