Liberal Education

Is It Really My Fault? Confronting the Myths Surrounding Women's Advancement

I was talking with my partner about these remarks, and for some reason my red sauce came to her mind. She told me that I should talk about my red sauce. I wondered how I could possibly talk about my red sauce in remarks on women and leadership and the myths surrounding our advancement. Now, maybe she was just scheming to get me to make my red sauce—or gravy, as my family would call it. It’s terrific (if I do say so myself), legendary in some parts, and always a favorite among my friends, who know when I make them gravy I am showing them lots and lots of love. My gravy is especially great the day after it has simmered fully on a low-heat burner . . . but I digress!

The notion of talking about my red sauce and women and leadership and the myths surrounding our advancement “simmered” in my mind as I considered these remarks, and I wondered how I could use red sauce as metaphor. I remembered that most working-class Southern Italian American women never used recipes. Never. My nana never did. In fact, it was a very big joke in my family that my mom, self-admittedly not the best or the most interesting cook, would stand over or behind or next to my nana armed with measuring cups and spoons, trying to figure out how Nana made her red sauce, her meatballs—in fact, most of her recipes! My mom would try to place measuring cups strategically under Nana’s hands as she quickly and adeptly moved through her cooking rituals. Nana just did it. She intuited what the right combinations were and what the right ingredients were—the right tomatoes, the right spices, the right amount of cheese, the feel of the meat in her hands as she molded it into balls ready to be fried in the best olive oil. She intuited, and she practiced, and she intuited, and she practiced, and she did that with her cooking over and over again.

Creating recipes for women’s advancement

I think the early higher education leaders, who happened to be women, were like my nana. Those pioneering women didn’t have a set of recipes to follow. They worked to find the right ingredients and the right combinations to lead and serve their institutions. They didn’t have leadership development programs or books on effective leadership, on how to lean in, or on how to be more confident. There were no apparent mentorships or sponsorships. These women intuited, and they practiced, and they intuited, and they practiced, and they did that with their leadership over and over again. There really just wasn’t a recipe for women’s leadership.

As the many social movements of the 1960s and 1970s progressed, the egregious ways in which women were overlooked for leadership roles became clearer and clearer, and remedies were developed to address the gaps that existed in higher education leadership. It was then that we started to create recipes for women’s advancement.

We knew that there were systemic issues. Clearly, there was institutionalized racism, sexism, and heterosexism. Women, and men and women of color, and LGBT men and women were clearly not welcome and, therefore, not visibly present in the academy, particularly in senior administration. We created Higher Education Resource Services and other leadership development programs to discern and teach the right recipes for advancement. We had the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Campus Women Lead initiative; we identified the chilly classroom climate and worked to utilize Title IX to gain educational equity and leadership equity. We had the National Association of Women Deans, Administrators, and Counselors (later the National Association for Women in Education), which was always in the lead, creating recipes for all women and for leadership at all levels. We had the American Council on Education (ACE) Office of Women and the ACE National Identification Program to assist women in creating recipes for women’s advancement. We had the recipes that were based on gaining the skills, knowledge, and tenacity necessary for leadership.

Fast-forward to today. I wonder, has the “recipe” for women’s advancement in the twenty-first century become, perhaps, a little too measured?

Like many of you, I read all the reports and books and blogs about women in leadership across all sectors, thinking that there may be clues as to why women leaders are still so few and why this circumstance still exists in the twenty-first century. In recent years, attempts to address the seeming intractability of moving the needle on women’s leadership have led to an explosion of books written by women to tell us—women—how to enter into leadership and become successful leaders. It seems as though each woman spooning out this advice has her own recipe for success. I ask myself, do we or don’t we—“lean in”? And if we do “lean in,” how will we be perceived? And what, exactly, are we leaning in to?

Or is it that we don’t have enough—what? Confidence? Chutzpah? Ambition? Drive? Are we not “tough enough,” because “nice girls” don’t get the corner office? But aren’t we supposed to be nice girls, to be liked? Do the guys worry about being liked as they seek the corner office?

Moreover, are these contemporary recipes for leadership for all women, or just some women? I strongly encourage you to read bell hooks’s critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.1 hooks notes that “Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged. And she makes it seem that privileged white men will eagerly choose to extend the benefits of corporate capitalism to white women who have the courage to ‘lean in.’ It almost seems as if Sandberg sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality.”2

I agree with hooks, for there is deep, systemic inequality still. And that systemic inequality perpetuates a culture that values men as leaders, still, to the exclusion of women in any significant way; in no sector do women make up 30 percent of the senior leadership. I am on the national board of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America (GSUSA). In the national campaign led by GSUSA and its CEO, Anna Maria Chavez, to “ban bossy,” there was an effort to call out the fact that when boys lead they are called “leaders” and when girls lead they are called “bossy.” Is it any wonder that boys stay in leadership and girls opt out of leadership? In fact, younger girls just run away from leadership! This flight is indicative of this culture, this system, in which white and male are the norm and women and those of color are outside the norm and, therefore, not welcome at the table of leadership.

Is it our fault?

Are the right ingredients to be found in any or all of these books? Is it really our fault?

Like my mother’s attempt to replicate my nana’s red sauce recipe with measuring cups and spoons, contemporary books on women’s leadership seem, at least to me, far too prescriptive. It’s not just our fault. Many of us push forward every day. We are mission driven and student focused. We understand the importance of equity-inclusion-diversity, and we know we have a role in making higher education more accessible at all levels. Most of us have confidence. Many of us are still managing a set of gendered notions of how we’re viewed when we actually exercise leadership. And balance? Try daily negotiation around a whole host of tasks that are never balanced.

There is still a significant lack of advancement for women, but is it our fault?

In January 2016, the American Council on Education released an information brief titled Pipelines, Pathways, and Institutional Leadership,3 a follow-up to the Academia section of the 2013 Benchmarking Women’s Leadership in the United States report.4 The brief examines the stunning lack of advancement—and, at times, actual decline—for women in faculty, administrative, and board of trustee positions.

First, there is the pipeline myth, the persistent idea that there are too few qualified women for leadership positions. The most current data on educational attainment show that women make up more than 50 percent of students in all degree programs; since 2006, the majority of doctoral degrees have been awarded to women. Women’s educational attainment can no longer be questioned.

Next, there is the glass ceiling, the longstanding metaphor for the intangible, systemic barriers that prevent women from obtaining senior leadership positions. As of 2014, women hold only 31 percent of the full professor positions at degree-granting institutions. The higher the rank—from service or research only to tenured full faculty—the fewer women one finds. Women of color often outnumber men of color in lower-ranking faculty positions, but more men of color hold full professor positions that do women of color.

Even though women have higher educational attainment levels than men, there are few women at senior ranks in both faculty and administration. In 2014, male faculty members held a higher percentage of tenured positions at every type of institution, even though they did not hold the highest number of faculty positions at every rank.

Regardless of academic rank, men are paid more than women and are more likely to be on the tenure track. In fact, the pay gap has actually widened. Men outearn women by $13,616 at public institutions and by $17,843 at private institutions. Men make more than women at every rank, in every discipline, and in every institutional type except two-year private institutions. Data from the US Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System on the average salary of full-time, nine-month, instructional faculty show that the gap between the salaries of men and women has grown from $3,106 in 1975–76 to $15,173 in 2013–14.

Finally, when it comes to presidents, chief academic officers, and governing boards, the needle hasn’t moved much. The percentage of women who serve as college and university presidents has stayed at the 26–27 percent mark for many years. The American Council on Education will be conducting its American College Presidency Study in 2016, and I am eager to see whether the needle has moved for women in the presidency. Men outnumber women on governing boards, both public and independent, by more than two to one. And here’s an example of some back-drift: the percentage of women serving as chief academic officers in public, doctoral degree–granting institutions actually declined between 2008 and 2013, the last year for which we have data. And since chief academic officer is still the primary position from which most women enter the presidency, this decline should not be taken lightly.

As part of its Moving the Needle: Advancing Women in Higher Education initiative, the American Council on Education has set an ambitious goal of achieving gender parity in higher education administration—a goal of having 50 percent of college and university presidents be women by 2030.5 In this context, Politico’s coverage of the Pipelines, Pathways, and Institutional Leadership information brief was ironic: “A few days after launching its campaign to see that half of college chief executives are women by 2030, the American Council on Education put out an infographic showing just how far they have to go.”6 Just how far we have to go? Is this our fault?

No. It’s not our fault.

Passing our recipes on

When I make my red sauce today, I combine my nana’s wisdom and intuition with my mother’s measurements. I have a set of faded yellow index cards on which I wrote my mother’s recipes many, many years ago in my Catholic-school cursive.

In preparing these remarks, I reflected on my own leadership journey and on the leadership journeys of valued colleagues. There is no doubt that the pipeline is full, that the glass ceiling exists, and that we still have far to go. The higher we look, the fewer of us are there. We know we simmer in environments that were not designed for us or for our leadership. In our work, just like being at the stove making the red sauce, we literally manage the heat and stay until we are able to make our leadership sauce.

I look at the recipe for today’s leadership journey as combining wisdom and intuition with foundational and measured effort. It’s about recognizing the realities of systemic barriers and acknowledging that we all must continue our work to advance ourselves and other women. It’s about taking that dog-eared, cursive-written recipe for our leadership red sauce and passing it on to the next younger woman. To whom will you pass your recipe?


1. Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (New York: Knopf, 2013).

2. bell hooks, “Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In,” The Feminist Wire, October 28, 2013,

3. Heather L. Johnson, Pipelines, Pathways, and Institutional Leadership: An Update on the Status of Women in Higher Education (Washington, DC: American Council on Education, 2016),

4. University of Denver, Benchmarking Women’s Leadership in the United States (Denver, CO: University of Denver Colorado Women’s College, 2013),

5. To learn more about the Moving the Needle initiative or to sign on to the call to action, visit

6. “Morning Education: A Daily Overview of Education Policy News,” Politico, January 20, 2016,

Lynn M. Gangone is vice president, ACE Leadership, at the American Council on Education. This article was adapted from the author’s address to the Networking Breakfast for Women Faculty and Administrators at the 2016 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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