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Career Advice

Diversity in academic leadership: the gap at the top

Despite all of the affirmative action policies and unconscious bias training at universities, something is still amiss.


As academic administrators, we have had many occasions to witness, participate in and even lead change at our institutions that reflects our own commitments to diversity and equity in the academy. We have also had reminders that progress is uneven. We celebrate announcements of women and members of other equity seeking groups, but we are still dismayed by the overall results of hires in senior administration. At the moment, for example, women hold 25 percent of university presidencies or equivalent, with limited data on other equity seeking groups.

In addition, and given that affirmative action policies and unconscious bias training have become commonplace for faculty and research chair searches, we are often taken aback by the anecdotes shared with us by promising individuals about the reasons they have been given for not making it to shortlists or not being offered positions they interviewed for.

Equity seeking candidates who have not made the cut have been told that they don’t have enough experience or that their experience is too narrow. They have not held senior roles in advancing equity or they have focused too much on equity. Our colleagues are asked to speak about their leadership style only to learn that the emphasis on team-building leaves doubts about their individual accomplishments. They are asked about difficult choices they have made only to discover that they lack flexibility. Mostly they hear that they are not ready – because they have not held the position thought to be the prior rung on the ladder. Or they have held the correct position for an insufficient amount of time to take the leap or for too long to bring fresh exciting perspectives. Our colleagues welcome advice that results in enhanced curriculum vitae and presentations. However, as comments such as these accumulate, canceling each other out, they are difficult to understand. And when colleagues compare their histories and achievements with others, they are perplexed by the contradictory assessments. Something is amiss.

Taking identity seriously means more than selecting marginalized candidates from pools of individuals who otherwise look the same. If we want more women and other equity seeking groups to develop skills and confidence, those of us in leadership roles need to play an active role in redefining traditional service roles and, at the same time, mentor colleagues to step into these roles and become adept at articulating the leadership qualities they develop and demonstrate.

Valuable skills such as active listening, consulting, strategizing, visioning/speculating, managing conflict and divergent stakeholder perspectives and implementing are learned and practised in many roles other than the conventional pathway of head/chair to dean to vice president to president. These key skills cannot be acquired and embodied without some depth of experience combined with a level of authority and responsibility. However, we strongly believe that there are many roles and activities that could be acknowledged as sites for the development and enhancement of leadership skills.

We offer the following examples and invite readers to generate their own lists: chairing Senate during a challenging period; chairing a Senate committee over development of a multi-year academic plan; co-chairing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission; serving on a bargaining team; chairing a faculty board; directing a large-scale, multi-partner international institute; designing and implementing new undergraduate and graduate programs; organizing summer institutes; heading a union; and/or serving as a head of a large academic or non-academic association.

We also recommend the following for university-wide search committees to consider when looking to fill senior roles like that of president and vice-president, many of which can also enhance the outcomes for searches at the decanal level:

  • Make a senior leader representing equity issues (e.g. AVP equity or AVP Indigenous) voting members of senior leadership search committees.
  • Develop new senior search committee processes to embed equity principles. Ensure that these are prominent in community consultations, the position brief, and the interview protocol.
  • Give careful consideration to the role of the chair of the committee to ensure that all members have an equal share in the responsibility for the outcome. It is important that different members speak first in order to maximize the development of a collaborative team.
  • Given diverse academic backgrounds, it is important that all applicants and candidates’ academic norms and cultures are well-understood and respected.
  • Require search consultants to articulate a compelling EDI philosophy and a robust equity group recruitment strategy.
  • Smaller and diverse search committees stand a better chance of developing trust and the possibility for new perspectives to disrupt the taken-for granted, both in terms of criteria and observation about candidates. An optimal size for senior search committees may be 11 members.
  • Student input is very important; however, student committee members should be drawn from student association executives and coached about their role. A robust process for input at the development stage and structured meetings with student organizations at the latter stages of the search may be more effective.
  • Ensure that viable candidates from equity seeking groups, particularly Indigenous and racialized candidates, are well represented on longlists, shortlists, and interview lists (no less than 50 percent equity group representation at all levels). Keep competitions open until appropriate representation is achieved.
  • Provide leadership development support for equity seeking individuals interested in pursuing leadership opportunities.

Universities are dynamic institutions. This dynamism is the result of our willingness to engage with difficult questions and changing norms and knowledges. The shift to student-centric practices along with the confluence of numerous political and social movements require us to diversify our leadership representation, and develop strategies for continued collaboration and partnership in research and learning.

Barbara Crow is dean of the faculty of arts and science at Queen’s University. Alice Pitt is the vice-provost academic at York University.

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  1. Andy Houghton / August 19, 2020 at 07:18

    “something is still amiss” it’s probably the wrong sort of training.

    You might find this video interesting

    It explains where unconscious bias comes from, how it can affect decision making and influence the workplace.

    There are also suggestions for reducing or eliminating bias in the workplace.
    If you’d like to leave a comment, please do so beneath the video and we will reply.

    We also have videos about Diversity and Inclusion on our website and you can see these on our Showreel page here:

  2. Mark Mercer / August 19, 2020 at 14:33

    “Despite all of the affirmative action policies and unconscious bias training at universities, something is still amiss.” What’s amiss are affirmative action policies and unconscious bias training. Get rid of all of it. Hire and promote on the basis of ability and merit only.

  3. casey / August 23, 2020 at 15:17

    @Marc Mercer You missed the point of any equity training you’ve taken (I’m guessing it’s none). Hiring “on merit” is code for “keep the status quo of straight white males in charge”.
    Countless studies where equal resumes were examined by both men and women were found that if the resume had a female name on it, they were less likely to be hired, and if they were, they’d be offered less money.
    That is “merit” for you. It keeps everyone else down but those who already hold the power. The idea of merit-based hiring is a myth perpetuated by the likes of you. It means women and POCs have to work twice as hard to get half as far as a white man.

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