Strategies for Success in the Academy for Black WomenAll are members of Sisters of the Academy, founded in 2001 to facilitate black women's success in higher education.
For centuries higher education was doubly closed to African American women, barring both women and blacks. Today thousands hold professional positions on campus. At the NASPA annual conference in Philadelphia in March, three spoke on “Life of Purpose for Black Female Student Affairs Administrators,” sharing practical wisdom from their research to encourage others along the path.
• Dr. Tamara Bertrand Jones, assistant professor of higher education in Florida State University’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies.
• Dr. Melanie Hayden Glover, who just moved from admissions at Ohio University to be academic success coordinator at Arizona State University.
• Dr. LeKita Scott Dawkins, director of foundation relations at Syracuse University.
Together with Dr. Marguerite McClinton, director of foundation relations at Paul Quinn College in Dallas TX, they surveyed black women administrators about their lived experiences. After getting 210 responses to their initial email survey, they used a snowball technique to get more. Their final sample was 31% directors or executives, 28% at mid-level and 22% at entry level. Most were in student affairs.
Survey questions explored essential skills, mentoring experiences, career paths, challenges, perceptions of students and the balance between teaching, research and service. They’re hoping other African American women aspiring to leadership can learn from the results, which they plan to publish in 2012. All four are members of Sisters of the Academy, founded in 2001 to facilitate black women’s success in higher education.
Bertrand Jones and Scott Dawkins were among the seven co-founders, who met as graduate students at Florida State University. Comparing notes about what they wished someone had told them, they organized to help others make sense of the process and other challenges of higher education.
Influential African American women have pursued life goals to educate others since the early days of the United States.
Hayden Glover mentioned:
1793—Catherine Ferguson, born into slavery, founded a school for the poor in New York City. It persists today as the Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women, a high school for pregnant and parenting teens.
1904—Mary McLeod Bethune, the child of former slaves and a graduate of the Moody Bible Institute, opened a cabin school in Daytona Beach FL; it is now Bethune-Cookman College. She became a leading advocate for civil rights and advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt.
1922—Lucy Diggs Slowe became the first dean of women at Howard University. She co-founded the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and founded both the Association of Advisors to Women in Colored Schools and the National Association of College Women.
1956—Willa B. Player became president of Bennett College in Greensboro NC. When civil rights action peaked in Greensboro she visited jailed students daily and arranged for them to have classes and exams in jail. She later served 20 years as director of the Division of College Support in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
2001—Ruth Simmons was inaugurated as president of Brown University in Providence RI, becoming the first black president of an Ivy League school. The wealth of Brown’s founding family had come partly from the slave trade; Simmons named a committee to examine the university’s historic relationship to slavery and justice.
By 2007 there were 117,327 black women in professional positions on campus, including 12,772 executives or managers and 49,077 faculty, she said. African American women are the largest employee minority group in higher education, chiefly at public 4-year and 2-year schools. Challenges remain, especially handling stress, getting support from higher-level administrators and balancing community, work and family.
Four core skills or behaviors surfaced in the survey: respecting others, building community, navigating politics and solving problems.
Respondents with fewer than five years of experience highlighted organizational knowledge, communications, leadership and problem solving as important in their jobs. After five years they added strategic planning to the mix.
After they had more than 10 years of experience, they were checking every option the survey listed, including:
The message for women: Just because you don’t see a need for certain skills now doesn’t mean you won’t ever need them. If you stay in administration, sooner or later you’ll use them all.
“Women rarely get to top positions in student affairs because they like to work with students directly,” Scott Dawkins said. “Women don’t strive for power; instead they seek to collaborate.” Stereotypes of ideal women leaders don’t match the skills they’ll actually need. A study by Street and Kimmel using the Sex Role Trait Inventory found that women leaders were supposed to exhibit compassion and deference, while men ideally showed intellect, power and sexuality. Women need to understand this expectation but still develop the essential skills they’ll use on the job.
Decide whether you need to go for a doctorate; don’t be afraid of the GRE. Learn about budgets and management on a larger scale than only in your particular unit. Network even if you’re an introvert.
Manage your time to let you read the latest books and research. Make presentations at conferences, online or in poster sessions. You’ll not only gain skills and visibility, you’ll develop confidence to move to the next level.
Tips for developing essential skills:
1. Recognize leaders’ need for many skills, including the ability to be a good follower.
2. Play close attention to what works most effectively in your leadership.
3. Keep building your skill set, learning from tough feedback when necessary.
4. Don’t feel obliged to conform; build your own leadership style.
5. Identify a mentor to guide you with constructive criticism.
“Mentoring is a process to help rookies learn technical expertise, acceptable behavior and an overall sense of competence,” Bertrand Jones said. Of the women in their survey, 55% had mentors who were African American and 60% had mentors who were women. Most mentoring relationships were formed at work and lasted an average of four years.
Women with mentors are more likely to be retained and to move forward. They have more confidence. It’s a positive socialization experience.
Mentors model appropriate professional conduct for big issues and day-to-day challenges: How do you handle email or the line of students outside your door? They help with work-related issues and offer career advice: When is it time to move? They may also support personal development if asked: Where do you get your hair done? Where do you go to church?
Tips for mentees:
1. Develop a list of the characteristics you want in a mentor. Are you looking for someone with leadership skills or another skill set? Should your mentor be someone who has a job you want?
2. Be clear about what you expect from your mentor. Are you hoping she’s the be-all-and-end-all, or is there one particular thing you need from her?
3. Seek mentors through relationships you form at professional meetings, conferences and workshops.
4. Be open to mentors of a different sex, ethnicity or career field. You can learn from peer mentoring as well.
5. Maintain regular, honest communication with your mentor. Respect her time by using email when appropriate.
Mentoring is a learning partnership that goes both ways. Mentors benefit from the opportunity to give back. Sisters of the Academy offers group mentoring for graduate students and junior faculty through a week-long research boot camp, a weekend writing retreat and a seminar in writing grants. Its events also helps African American women connect for peer and individual mentoring.
Tips for mentors:
1. Be clear about expectations for yourself and your mentee. Do you plan to meet weekly? How much of your contact will be by email?
2. Don’t rely on your mentee to initiate contact.
3. Challenge your mentee as well as supporting her. You are not a parent figure; the mentor-mentee relationship is professional, not personal.
4. Help your mentee to develop the skills and networks necessary for success.
5. Remember that mentoring is a reciprocal relationship. “Protégées motivate me to learn,” she said.
Some women fall into a career; some make a conscious choice. In their survey, 63% of the women in student affairs said they’d made a conscious choice, while 71% of those in academic affairs had done so.
Career paths varied:
• 70% followed a conventional route, moving into administration from faculty or rising within student affairs and getting the appropriate graduate degree.
•18% followed an unconventional route within education. Scott Dawkins told WIHE that her path fell in this category. She got a BS in elementary education and MEd in educational psychology for a career in school counseling. Her PhD in educational leadership provided the credential for her current grant-writing position as director of foundation relations.
• 12% came into higher education administration from somewhere completely different, like business or finance. “It showed that people can come from anywhere,” she said. If you want to be an administrator, you should have a need and desire to mentor. People want to be challenged to take a higher position. The higher you rise, the more it will be part of your job to boost the careers of others.
“It’s very important to have role models along the way. It’s important at the same time to know yourself very well as you navigate,” she said. You need to be flexible and open to unexpected opportunities that may open up.
Tips for making career choices:
1. Know where you want to go; it will help you to prepare. Make a personal action plan that includes developing essential skills and acquiring or being a mentor.
2. Don’t be afraid to change your plan as life changes. Your thought process or the influences around you may change. Partners and kids can wreak havoc on your plans.
3. Pursue various kinds of experiences.
4. Research your career options. Remember that the options can change over time.
5. Network, network, network!
“Whatever you are working on, other people are working on these things too. This information is available; you’re not in this alone,” she said. —
Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2011, October). Strategies for Success in the Academy for Black Women. Women in Higher Education, 20(10), 22-23.