Reflections on Gender Equity in Higher Education: An Introduction

This is the first post in a series contributed by Susan Albertine, Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Student Success at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)

Reading the postings at SAfeminist, I’ve been thinking not just about leadership and mentorship for women on campus, but also about the purposes of leadership itself. Why do we—by whom I mean SAfeminist voices—care so much about leadership, specifically about female leadership? Is it really self-evident why it matters? SAfeminist writers are united in their call. I hear that. I hear that women continue to feel pulled between the personal and the political, between family and career, between fixed and fluid identities, between one polarity and another. Personal experience tells me those dynamics are real. What I am not hearing as clearly is why women’s leadership and mentorship will help right now. I’d like to reflect on that question. To what end do we envision the leadership for which we are calling?

For some of us, myself included, the call itself has echoed over decades. But five decades in—five decades, that is, as a self-aware feminist—I know that different generations and different groups or populations hear it in different ways. We feminists hear it in different ways across our own generations. There seems to be an irresistible competition across the generations and among, across, and even within our different identities over time. We tend to think so much within the context, in other words, of our generation and the identities we claim that we don’t see a bigger picture. Maybe that’s why we are at a loss for leadership everyone needs now.

I’m frankly worried about that. I’m not so sure feminists have a clear enough shared vision right now, let alone women in general. So in my own struggle to work toward clarity, I want to share some ideas. The first is to answer that big question.

We are living in a time when the concept of gender equity is deeply and publicly fraught. I started to write again about women and gender just recently in Diversity & Democracy, a publication of the Association of American Colleges (spring 2015). The issue is titled Gender Equity in Higher Education. The piece I wrote is “Gender Equity in Higher Education: Calling for Equitable, Integrative, and Intergenerational Leadership.” In the article I described and gathered evidence to support my argument for the three dimensions of leadership named in the title. I tried to say why leadership matters with particular urgency right now. But I am not sure I nailed it. So here, in this blog posting, that is my intent.

The bigger picture, for me, is as big as this country, the United States, itself. We ought to be talking about more than higher education and more than our individual lives and careers. We have some real challenges in the U.S. We are a country losing its grasp on democracy. By every measure I can think of, our grasp is weaker now than it has been across the past century. The tremendous wealth gap and vast disparities in education are key examples. The question of how we sustain the values of a modern pluralistic democracy ought to concern us all. Upward mobility, a cherished American value, ought to concern us all.

Toward that end, universal education of high quality has always appeared essential. Educators continue to glimpse that prospect, just over the horizon. Education is part of the vision and the means to achieve the vision of democracy that guides us. Ever since the early republic, education in the U.S. has been presented as instrumental and necessary to achieve and protect the evolving body politic. We haven’t achieved high-quality universal education yet at any level, but in U.S. higher education, many of us over decades and centuries continue to believe that we should strive in that beautiful direction. Not only that, educators know that in order to thrive in global context now, people in the U.S. need to go to college at unprecedented rates. In higher education, as the Association of American Colleges & Universities has been arguing for a century, educators need to offer a liberal education to everyone in college. That is how to build and protect a pluralistic democracy for the country in the world now and into the future.

So what about women? For me, it is axiomatic. Aim for all women—and all people who identify as women—and reach the entire country. Women have always shouldered a much larger responsibility for education and nurturance of the next generation. It would be great to share that responsibility equally, but that is not yet the case. As goes the condition of education and wellbeing for all women, so goes the condition of education and wellbeing for the country and for the next generations. Aim for equitable educational outcomes for all women, and reach everybody. Insofar as liberal education can liberate minds and expand horizons for every person, it’s got to do that for women. We haven’t achieved it, but I believe it. That’s the big picture to which I hope and imagine my own leadership will contribute. Why women’s leadership? Truly, the thriving and well-being of our country depends on it.

So having made that commitment, I want to explore some dimensions of leadership that I hope will be helpful to readers of this blog. Up next, equitable leadership.

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