Shattering the Glass Ceiling of Academia

Dawn Williams

Between 2006 and 2016, women earned more than 50 percent of all doctoral degrees in the United States. Women also outnumber men in the number of master’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees and associate degrees received, according to a 2016 report titled Pipelines, Pathways, and Institutional Leadership: An Update on the Status of Women in Higher Education, by the American Council on Education and the Center for Policy Research and Strategy.

Yet, when it comes to holding key leadership positions in academia, women are underrepresented. Women make up only 26 percent of the nation’s college and university presidents, and within the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences—an association of more than 500 four-year institutions—only about one-third of deans are women.

“When it comes to educational leadership, the higher you go up in the ranks, the fewer women you will see in leadership positions,” said Dawn Williams, Ph.D., interim dean of the School of Education.

However, Howard University is bucking that trend.

“Six of the 13 academic deans at Howard University are women,” said President Wayne A. I. Frederick.

“More than half of my Cabinet members are also women, while the Howard University Class of 2020 is made up of approximately 67.9 percent women. As Howard continues its legacy of identifying the most qualified professionals to lead this institution, we will also remain committed to ensuring that the legacy of the Howard Woman is one that transcends generational barriers and uplifts both local and global communities.”

Danielle Holley-Walker

Not only have those efforts made Howard stronger, but they ensure that Howard remains a trailblazer in the fight for equal opportunity for all. 



The Push Toward Equality

The dearth of women in leadership roles is rooted in history. Like African Americans, women have had to fight for equal rights in the United States and only achieved the right to vote in 1920.

“Whenever there’s a group that historically has been marginalized, it may take them a long time to be able to catch up in terms of receiving equal opportunities,” said Danielle Holley-Walker, J.D., dean of Howard’s School of Law. 

Even when women made political progress, many paused their career advancement when raising children, said Toyin Tofade, Pharm.D., M.S., BCPS, CCPC, dean of Howard’s College of Pharmacy. “In the U.S., many females have sacrificed careers they might have had for the males,” she said.

With fewer women in leadership positions, there is also a lack of mentors to support younger women.

“Many of the decision-makers in executive positions are men, so if their mentees are other males, it creates an opportunity for them to be promoted for higher positions while women may not have that same type of network,” Williams said.

Toyin Tofade

Laura Jack

It’s important to note that the exclusion of women from leadership roles is not necessarily intentional, said Laura H. Jack, M.B.A., vice president for development and alumni relations at Howard. 

“People tend to hire folks that look like them, so if you’re a male, chances are you’re going to look for a male candidate,” she said. “It may not be that you have anything against women, but unfortunately it’s an unconscious bias that people tend to have.”

For that reason, a successful attempt to diversify the ranks must be intentional, which may explain why Howard has been able to do what so many other colleges and universities have not. 



Equal Opportunity for All

It seems fitting that Howard would be a pioneer in gender equality. After all, the University has always fought to open doors of opportunity and understood the value of diversity.

“Any time you have diversity in your workforce, that makes your workforce stronger and better,” said Carrolyn J. Bostick (M.A. ’88), vice president and chief human resources officer. “Having women in key roles adds a different perspective. We are trying to make sure that we take advantage of all the perspectives that we have at Howard—women, different nationalities, men, different generations.”

What does that mean on a practical level? “Conversations are different when there are women in the room,” said Gracia Hillman, vice president for external affairs. “I was in a discussion where there were three women and three men. The women saw the opportunity very different than the men saw it. There would have been a very different outcome if we had approached it strictly their way or strictly our way.”

Carrolyn Bostick

Women have unique qualities that make them well-suited for leadership, said Gina S. Brown, Ph.D., R.N., M.S.A., dean of Howard’s College of Nursing and Allied Health Sciences. Not only are women strategic and organized, but “women can multitask. We’re built to have a baby on our hip, stir a pot and hold the phone under our ear at the same time.”

Diversity also helps with recruitment efforts. “One of the things that brought me to Howard was Dr. Frederick’s stated commitment to hiring more women as deans and more women into his cabinet,” said Holley-Walker. “To reach those goals, you have to have very concrete action steps, and I think that’s what we’ve done at Howard.”

The fact that so many women are in leadership roles speaks volumes to the rest of the world. “It helps send a message to the international audience that is looking to the U.S. to lead,” points out Tofade. “There are some cultures where a female doesn’t even go to school.”

It also has a powerful impact on Howard students. “Women of all ages see themselves in the leadership of the University,” said Sandra Edmonds Crewe, Ph.D., ACSW, dean of the School of Social Work. “The focus can shift from breaking barriers, being the first, to influencing positive outcomes.”

Some students may not even realize how significant it is to see women in positions of power until years down the road when they are given the opportunity to lead, said Gracie Lawson-Borders, Ph.D., dean of the School of Communications (left).

“They’ll say, ‘Of course I can do this, because I have witnessed this before. This is not an unknown.’”

Gina S. BrownSandra Crewe


Lessons From the Leaders 

Florence Prioleau

One of the greatest gifts this sisterhood of leaders can share is a wealth of knowledge for the next generation. 

After all, they each know what it is to shatter glass ceilings in their career progression.

Confidence and authenticity are key, said Jack. “Stand by your values, and don’t change who you are. There will be days where you don’t feel successful or appreciated or heard, but if you stay true to your beliefs, you can rest assured that you did your best.”

Another important trait is perseverance, said Florence Prioleau, J.D., vice president and secretary/general counsel. “You’ve got to want to be there. You’ve got to want to be successful.”

Women also must learn the art of self-promotion, something that many men seem to be more comfortable doing, Prioleau said. 

While women are often hesitant to talk about their achievements because they feel like they’re bragging, “there’s a way to talk about what you’re doing without sounding boastful or arrogant. You’ve got to let them know the value you bring to the business.”

Women should also not be afraid to take the next step, and trust that current experiences are preparing them for future challenges, said Hillman, who has held such positions as executive director of the League of Women Voters and senior coordinator for International Women’s Issues for the U.S. Department of State. 

“When I got tapped for the State Department, Isaid,‘NowIknowwhyIwasatthe League of Women Voters. It was to help me be ready for the position at the State Department.’”

While the success of all of these women places Howard in the forefront of gender diversity, the University is not resting on its laurels.

Gracie Lawson-Borders

“At Howard, we do have a number of women who are deans and who are vice presidents, and that is putting us on the right trajectory,” said Lawson-Borders. “As we continue to move forward, we look for that day when there will be a woman who is either provost or president.”







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