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In my opinion

Female leaders in academia share their stories of courage

The great importance of knowing themselves and recognizing their courage ranged from little everyday acts, called micro-courage, to big acts of courage whereby they felt their job was on the line.


“I think that brave is sort of ‘in the moment.’ Courage takes longer; it’s that ‘stick-with-it-ness.’ It’s believing in something so truly” (the words of a participant).

It takes courage to be a leader, especially if you are female. Leadership is hard work and requires commitment and competence. Leaders are also on display to others: strangers will judge their decision-making, take issue with their personal characteristics and with their salaries. Some leaders will be featured in a derogatory way on social media. Given the speed of social media, a leader can be labelled ineffectual even before they can prove they are effectual.

As an administrator, I wondered about the meaning of courage specifically for female leaders in the academy. Sitting around the various decision-making tables, I frequently saw females making a point but not being heard or acknowledged for their contributions; or a few minutes after making their point, another administrator would make the same point as the female administrator and be credited as having a great idea. Perhaps the misplaced credit pertains to the learning process and more time is needed to assimilate a point of a first presenter, giving the advantage to the second presenter.

Regardless, I saw female administrators not giving up at the table even though they usually were outnumbered and not always heard. They continued to speak up.

My observations led me to research. Therefore, 88 female academic and non-academic leaders ranging from directors to presidents representing 16 universities across Canada were asked, “What does courage mean to academic and non-academic female administrators working in higher education?” Seventy-five were interviewed face-to-face and the remainder were part of a focus group or had telephone interviews. Only 11 were under the age of 50 and two were 49 years of age, making this an older sample. Data were analyzed using Glaserian grounded theory methods (1992).

Courage is a common word and everyone knows what it means, yet the participants paused when they thought about the meaning of courage for themselves in their work. A few stated they had no courage, others saw more courage in others than in themselves, but most had a personal definition or description like this one from a participant:

“I think courage is doing something you are uncomfortable with and you have to stretch yourself and on top of that, the biggest thing for me is not knowing if you are going to be successful. Stretching and doing something you have never done before isn’t courage if you know you are going to succeed.”

The great importance of knowing themselves and recognizing their courage ranged from little everyday acts, called micro-courage, to big acts of courage whereby they felt their job was on the line. Essentially, the process of courage began with feelings of fear and vulnerability. Something happened to them professionally and sometimes personally that caused them to have a definite and describable shift out of their comfort zone. They filtered what they were observing through their personal values and then acted. The actions ranged from staying silent to “throwing down the baseball glove and having at it” (words of a participant). They believed there was always a consequence, whether it was real or imagined, for themselves or others.

A very common phrase they used was “doing what is right.” It was what motivated their actions. A few participants stated it was more important to first know their personal values and to act on these values then it was to believe that what they were doing was right. This was an important point; sometimes what they did was not always the right thing, but being true to themselves was.

This meant that they believed they had to take on others, whether that meant advocating for the underdog or reversing a costly bad administrative decision, to voicing an unpopular opinion or standing up to bullies. It was almost like they had no option but to act, and yet the act shook them to the core.

Personally, this research has been a very creative and inspiring process. It was a tremendous privilege to interview articulate and thoughtful female leaders. Already it has impacted me: I find I am peppering my language with descriptions of courage, introducing research findings into my teaching and actively engaging in strategies identified by the participants to promote thinking about courage when engaging in mentorship and sponsorship.

Dr. Yonge is a Distinguished University Professor in the faculty of nursing at the University of Alberta.

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  1. Andrea Ray-Robinson / September 5, 2017 at 19:55

    Dr. Yonge, your study is very meaningful to me as a former Ontario University Registrar who faced first-hand, the impact of making tough decisions to uphold academic and personal integrity. Thank you for bringing this issue to light in this forum. I look forward to following your work in this field in the future.

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