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Provost’s group seeks to foster women as academic leaders

by Sherry Fisher - October 22, 2007

Kathleen Holgerson recently learned first-hand what it is like to walk in the shoes of one of the highest administrators at the University.

Holgerson, director of the Women’s Center, accompanied Provost Peter Nicholls for a week as he engaged in his day-to-day tasks, in a pilot “shadowing” program organized by the Provost’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW).

The creation of a shadowing program was one of the recommendations of the PCSW leadership subcommittee, which, at Nicholls’ charge, issued a report that explored strategies for advancing women in leadership positions at the University.

“The University is committed to ensuring that more women are involved in the administration at all levels within the institution,” Nicholls says.

“My office is committed to improving the climate and providing resources for women’s leadership development.”

Nicholls volunteered to be the first administrator shadowed.

Holgerson attended meetings, stayed in Nicholls’ office while he worked on correspondence, and accompanied him on a visit to the Avery Point campus. They had discussions after each meeting.

Nicholls says the experience was “mutually beneficial. I learned a lot from Kathleen’s observations.”

Holgerson says she asked questions about what was behind some of the decisions that were being made, and about the contexts for different conversations: “I was able to provide the perspective of what, if any, were the dynamics around gender or race.”

She says her role was “not only to shadow, but for both of us to take the experience and see what kind of program could be put into place.”

She and Nicholls will discuss the program’s future with members of the subcommittee.

“We want to be sure that whatever we do, we have the maximum impact,” Nicholls says.

“It’s very important that we try and work at getting more women involved in the administration at all levels.”

Nicholls is also supporting a workshop for PCSW members to be held in the spring. The goal of the two-day workshop is to help the group develop a strategic plan for women’s leadership development.

He also approved the creation of a permanent fund for women’s leadership training to enable one representative from UConn to attend a major women’s leadership training seminar each year.

The fund would also support women’s participation in such opportunities.

The goal is to institutionalize, either through nominations or applications, a more transparent and strategic process for participation in such events.

According to the report, in 2005-2006, only 11 of 51 department heads and four out of 15 deans were women.

The report says that academic leadership positions held by women are part of a system that was institutionalized before women had a large presence in the University.

Females in administrative positions therefore function in a working environment that still assumes that professionals will be available and committed to their positions because they have few family obligations.

The result is a stressful work atmosphere that tends not to be supportive of personal responsibilities.

Elizabeth Mahan, who chairs the leadership subcommittee, says that while men are also affected by stressors in the workplace, women are affected to a greater degree.

“[These stressors] tend to hit women harder because of deeply rooted patterns,” says Mahan, an associate extension professor in international affairs.

“Women have assumed certain responsibilities in the household, such as child care, and are trying to balance work and home life.”

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