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It’s Still A Man’s World: Challenging Androcentrism in the Academy – Why We Need to Value Empathy More

It’s Still A Man’s World: Challenging Androcentrism in the Academy – Why We Need to Value Empathy More

Empathy and compassion are critical for high-performing academic leaders, but institutions often undervalue these leadership competencies due to implicit gender bias. Let’s look at how to counter that tendency. This is the second in a series of articles on challenging androcentrism in higher education.

In this second article, we’ll look at one set of leadership traits we identified earlier in the series: empathy and compassion. We’ll examine:

  1. Why this leadership competency is linked to high performance.
  2. How androcentrism and implicit bias limit our ability to recognize and leverage this leadership competency in higher education.
  3. How we can take steps to improve this situation – at the organizational level, at the team level, and as individuals.

How Empathy and Compassion are Linked to Leadership and Team Performance

As the idea of emotional intelligence has become more accepted in the years since Goleman, Boyatzis, and McGee began publishing their research on it, acceptance of empathy and compassion as leadership competencies has also become more common. As a leadership competency, empathy is defined as the ability to:

  • Be curious about and understand the motivations of others.
  • Relate to differing experiences.
  • Imagine how others might feel.

Compassion moves beyond understanding to action, such as acting in someone else’s interest. In the human systems that are our colleges and universities, managing conflict, coordination, and relationships is paramount. Leading with empathy and compassion inspires trust, and trust strengthens relationships at the individual, team, and system levels. We know that addressing conflict with an empathetic skill set — including listening, openness, and understanding — can prevent a situation from either degenerating or escalating, and will likely lead to positive outcomes (Pressley, 2012).

Reviewing the literature, it’s easy to find research documenting the importance of demonstrating and teaching empathy and compassion, but there hasn’t been much written on how empathy and compassion are (or could be) practiced by administrative leaders in higher education. We can, however, extrapolate from research in other sectors. In “Leader Empathy: The Key to Effective Relationships” Matthew Lippincott (2018) relates these examples:

  • Increased ability to recognize the triggers and early signs of stress, anxiety, and conflict in his employees helped one leader minimize these issues and identify opportunities to help staff restore calm and focus.
  • A second leader reported that understanding another person’s concerns and needs can aid them in creating new opportunities for their development and win-win scenarios.

And in a noted study of highly effective teams, Google found that on high-performing teams, “all of the team members had a higher than average ability to read other people’s emotions based on their facial expressions,” and that empathy was correlated with team members’ reported experience of psychological safety (Camarote, 2016). Another key characteristic noted in the same study — the relatively equal distribution of talk time in meetings — is an indication of compassion (empathy in action).

How Androcentrism Limits Our Ability to Develop Empathy in Leaders

However, while empathy and compassion have become more recognized as key contributors of emotional intelligence and high performance, the practice of developing empathy and compassion as leadership competencies remains stubbornly uneven — both in higher education and in other sectors.

In his anatomy lecture, a professor jokingly included a slide of a nude pinup (Lipman, 2018). In the private sector, a recent New York Times article (Creswell, et. al. 2018) detailed the years of harassment, abuse, and experiences of being passed over for promotions that women at Nike endured. We could infer that if empathy and compassion had been normalized as key leadership competencies, women within those organizations would not have had to endure pinups, conversations about the best strip clubs, and references to their breasts in emails.

The examples may be obvious and egregious, but they illustrate the ubiquity of androcentrism (DiAngelo, 2012), which is defined as consciously or unconsciously placing a masculine point of view at the center of culture and history, thereby viewing women or any “other” as a deviation from the norm. In our andocentric world, a woman in leadership is perceived by default as a deviation from the norm. This creates the condition where men’s leadership strengths are overvalued, while women’s leadership strengths are undervalued. As empathy and compassion are leadership qualities generally associated with women, these capacities are frequently overlooked and underappreciated in both men and women — particularly in organizational cultures that prioritize competition over interpersonal collaboration or individual achievement over team effectiveness.

The normative expectations for leadership behavior in our organizations are that men will use authoritarian, top-down approaches, while women are expected to use empathy, compassion, and negotiation to get things done. But in practice, these expectations prevent our institutions from developing the capacity of their leaders. Men may be less incentivized to temper assertiveness (a key leadership competency we’ll discuss later in the series), while women are often placed in a no-win scenario. A display of too much empathy (or any emotion for that matter) and she is viewed as soft and unprofessional. Not enough compassion and she is viewed as cold and unapproachable. Because we interpret leadership qualities androcentrically, this gender bias against women and against these particular competencies is not going to be overcome just by how well these qualities are mastered and deployed by a handful of women.

To be effective, systems need a combination of authority, high expectations, empathy, and compassion. For individuals, teams, and organizations to benefit, women and men need to encourage, validate, institutionalize, and improve the practice of empathy and compassion in leadership.

What Steps Can We Take to Improve?


For organizations, imbuing compassion and empathy at the systems level means a culture change. In higher education, this is particularly the case because risk aversion, personal commitment to the work (particularly among faculty and academic leaders who entered their career as faculty, for whom work and personal identity are often closely tied), and the high emphasis on individual achievement and excellence can easily be distorted into a drive for perfectionism. Perfectionism is one of the ways in which androcentrism is expressed in organizational behavior. Jones and Okun identified perfectionism as a characteristic of white supremacy culture, and, to detect it, listed these markers:

  • Little appreciation expressed among people for the work that others are doing. When appreciation is expressed, it is directed at “the usual suspects” who regularly receive the credit for work that many contributed to.
  • It is common to hear leaders and colleagues point out how either a person or their work is inadequate.
  • It is common to talk with colleagues about the inadequacies of a person or their work without discussing the matter with the person in question.
  • Mistakes are treated as personal; they reflect badly on the person making them, rather than being seen as learning opportunities.
  • Making a mistake is frequently confused with being a mistake, or doing wrong is confused with being wrong.
  • Little time, energy, or funds are invested in reflection or identifying lessons learned from mistakes that can then improve practice.
  • There is a tendency to identify what is wrong, but little ability to identify, name, appreciate, and further develop what is right.

Jones, et al. also offer several behavioral antidotes to perfectionism. These “antidotes” require empathy and compassion, and open up opportunities for leaders with these traits to develop their teams, departments, or institutions as learning organizations. These antidotes include:

  • Develop a culture of appreciation, where the organization takes time to make sure that people’s work and efforts are appreciated.
  • Move from a focus on mistakes to a focus on learning. Establish the expectation that everyone will make mistakes and that those mistakes offer opportunities for learning.
  • Create an environment where people can recognize that mistakes sometimes lead to positive results.
  • Separate the person from the mistake; doing wrong is not being wrong.
  • When offering feedback, always speak to the things that went well before offering criticism.
  • Ask people within units across the institution to offer specific suggestions for how to do things differently when offering criticism.

There are also organizational policies that a college or university can institute both to counter gender bias generally and to communicate by action that empathy and compassion are core organizational values, such as offering administrative staff flex time, providing childcare, mandating gender bias training, ensuring equal pay, and making salary information public and transparent.


Here are two concrete steps that teams can take to validate and improve the practice of empathy and compassion: Team Start Up and Taking an Emotional Intelligence Team Assessment.

Team Start Up
The Team Start Up model (Cogan, 2018) can provide a structure for identifying and acting on opportunities to develop a team that is both demanding and compassionate. The goal is to foster productive relationships that drive performance. The model consists of four steps by which leaders can model and help their teams establish transparency, trust, and engagement:

  1. Preparation. In this step, the team leader clarifies her message and intended outcomes (e.g., more compassion and empathy). She prepares her remarks, answers to probable questions and objections, and communicates her expectations.
  2. Session Facilitation. The team leader starts with her prepared remarks and outlines a team activity to build trust and engagement.
  3. Team Activity. The activity could include a list of questions about how well the team expresses empathy and compassion. The team reflects on the questions individually, then discusses them in pairs or small groups.
  4. Report Out. Once the activity is completed, the small groups report back to the whole team, and the team leader facilitates a brief discussion to decide on the team’s areas for improvement and next steps.

Take an Emotional Intelligence Team Self Assessment
Either at the end of a meeting or in a standalone meeting, a team schedules time to assess itself on open communication, constructive conflict, effective problem solving and decision making, strong relationships, shared talk time, and shared leadership. Using a 1-5 scale (from 1= highly ineffective to 5 = highly effective), each team member rates the team’s effectiveness in these categories, then combines the individual scores to identify and prioritize areas for improvement. The team then establishes an action plan and timeframe for improvement, and sets a date to reconvene and review its progress.


As individuals, you can self-assess your emotional intelligence using the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, and you can take the Harvard Implicit Bias test to self-assess gender and other types of bias that may be influencing your perspective. Matthew Lippincott (2018) also offers these investigative questions that you can ask yourself in order to strengthen your capacity for empathy:

  1. How do you think a certain person feels about a specific event or topic?
  2. How would you feel if you were in their position?
  3. What facts do you have upon which to base your answers to 1 and 2?
  4. What is your plan to obtain accurate information from that person?
  5. How can you avoid coming to such conclusions in the future?

(This article was originally published in Academic Impressions)


Camarote, R. “What Google’s New Emotional Intelligence Study Says About Teamwork and Success.” March 14, 2016.

Cogan, M. “Accelerating a New Leader’s Entry: New Team Start Up.” OD Practitioner. Vol. 50 No. 2, 2018.

Creswell, J., et al. “At Nike, Revolt Led by Women Leads to Exodus of Male Executives.” New York Times, 28 Apr. 2018.

Diangelo, R. What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy. Peter Lang, New York, NY. 2012.

Goleman, D., et al. Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

Kenneth, J. and Okun, T. “White Supremacy Culture.” ChangeWork, 2001.

Kotter, J. P. Organizational Dynamics: Diagnosis and Intervention. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. 1978.

Lipman, J. That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together. HarperCollins, 2018.

Lippincott, M. “Leader Empathy: The Key to Effective Relationships.” Key Step Media, 7 Mar. 2018.

Pressely, D. “The Importance of Empathy in the Workplace.” Smart Business. November 16, 2012.

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Challenging Implicit Bias in the Academy

Challenging Androcentrism and Implicit Bias in the Academy

Higher education is still “a man’s world,” though it doesn’t have to be. But equipping women with tips and tools for getting ahead isn’t enough to level the playing field; deep change requires a shift in organizational culture. This is the first in a series of articles looking at how college and universities can navigate that shift. 

Recent studies have documented persistent gender inequities in higher education, including gender gaps in faculty salaries and only slow increases in the percentage of women in leadership positions. Women in higher education (and across sectors) face formidable barriers to advancement not only because gender bias exists on a personal level, but also because these biases are built into our organizational structures.

Equipping women with tips and tools for getting ahead isn’t enough to level the playing field; deep change requires a shift in organizational culture.

This is the first of a series of articles in which I will be looking at how men and women practice leadership traits, how these traits are often interpreted, and how biases held by both women and men keep women on the margins and impede their advancement within our colleges and universities.

(For the purposes of this series, the perspective is cisgendered, able bodied and living in the US.)

Diagnosing the Problem: Why It’s (Still) a Man’s World

In the words of Betty Newsome and James Brown, it is a man’s world.

My decision to write this series pre-dated the avalanche of allegations of sexual assault, abuse, improprieties, #metoo, and Time’s Up. The sheer number of allegations and the public’s intense reactions to them, highlights just how much a man’s world dominates our culture. As allegations continue to come to light, the complicity of both women and men in maintaining that dominance is exposed in the admissions that the perpetrator’s behavior was common knowledge.

While individually we may be horrified by sexual abuse and harassment of women, our cultural and social constructs hold a man’s world in place. This is partly due to androcentrism, by which we either consciously or unconsciously place a masculine point of view at the center of culture and history, thereby viewing women or any “other” as a deviation from the norm. This androcentrist perspective is deeply embedded in American cultural norms and rarely acknowledged, even while we grapple with sexism and gender discrimination at the personal level and in our organizations and communities.

How deeply embedded is the unconscious bias of androcentrism? Consider how men are paid higher salaries in female-dominated professions such as nursing and education (, and how rapidly men acquire leadership positions in female-dominated careers (Williams 1992, 1995, and p. 27 Diangelo). In a personal and recent example, I was co-facilitating a workshop at a local college and in the break out exercise in which we split participants into two groups of 12 (each containing 11 women and one man), each group chose the man to the be leader. This happens consistently. As a Slate article cheekily points out, the best way to get ahead in a female dominated profession is to be a man (Hu, 2015).

From infancy on, none of us escape gender socialization. After the age of five, girls “can be led to believe men are inherently smarter and more talented than women” (Danilova, 2017). Later, as adults, when we hear titles such as doctor, CEO, dean, and board of directors, the majority of the time we picture a white male. And no wonder. White men dominate leadership positions in all our major institutions — from the military and medicine to media, legal and criminal justice, policing, finance, industry, entertainment, science, and education. Based on the January 2017 S&P 500 list (, women currently hold only 5.2% of CEO positions. Our House of Representatives and Senate are roughly 80% male, and the same is true for higher education leadership, with men holding about 74% of leadership positions in the academy (Rogan).

Studies of successful women leaders reveal several leadership values and behaviors that such leaders demonstrate, and this series will examine each of these. However, most of the literature on this topic disregards androcentrism, the unconscious bias held by both men and women. When we fail to acknowledge and explore the ways in which androcentrist bias colors how we understand and react to leadership traits in women, we promote the myth that women, individually and collectively, can forge ahead into leadership positions if they just have the right tools in their tool box. In reality, we don’t just need to equip women in higher ed; we need to equip and change our institutions.

How Leaders Lead

Let’s take a closer look, first, at the leadership behaviors that have surfaced in recent research.

Meeting the complex and chaotic challenges facing higher education today requires different leadership styles than have been valued in the past. The types of leadership traits that appear to succeed in these organizations are the ones in which women have generally been assumed to excel. In other words, for colleges and universities to succeed, they will need to foster the kind of culture that encourages, appreciates, and promotes female and male leaders who demonstrate leadership behaviors and values that are traditionally associated with women.

In a survey of leadership literature, effective leaders develop and leverage these competencies:

  • Empathy, compassion
  • Self-awareness, self-development
  • An egalitarian mindset: inclusive, collaborative, consultative
  • Achievement-driven, conviction
  • Conceptual thinking: open to serendipity, creativity
  • Confidence
  • Cultural and political savvy
  • Vision: persuasive, inspires commitment
  • The ability to temper assertiveness

Of course, many men and women who are effective leaders often demonstrate some or all of these competencies. What tends to be different is how and when these behaviors are expressed. As Carol Vallone Mitchell points out in Breaking Through Bitch, women in leadership positions are expected to balance “being a woman and being a leader,” whereas no equivalent expectation exists for men. Androcentric bias leads to separate expectations for women leaders. So how do men and women within our colleges and universities work together to change organizational systems and bring women in from the margins to lead our institutions effectively? We need to ensure that leaders are supported and empowered to develop and express competencies and values that are stereotypically feminine. These are the very competencies needed in modern organizations, and mastering them will help us meet the challenges we face in this turbulent era of rapid change and complexity.

In each article of this series, we will examine one or more of the leadership traits listed above. We’ll look at why a trait or behavior is attributed to high performance, how androcentrism and implicit bias limits our ability to recognize this trait in women, and what specific actions – given the pervasiveness of androcentrism – individuals, teams, and organizations can take to remedy gender bias.

(Published in Academic Impressions)


American Association of University Women (AAUW). “FAQs about the Gender Pay Gap.”

American Council on Education. “Pipelines, Pathways, and Institutional Leadership: An Update on the Status of Women in Higher Education.” 2016.

Catalyst Knowledge Center.  “Women CEOs of the S&P 500.” 2017.

Danilova, M. “Study Shows Gender Bias at an Early Age.” The Boston Globe. January 27, 2017.

Diangelo, R. What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy. Peter Lang, New York, NY. 2012.

Hatch, J. “Gender Pay Gap Persists Across Faculty Ranks.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. March 22, 2017.

Hu, J.C. “What’s the Best Way to Get Ahead in a Female-Dominated Profession? Be a Man.” Slate. 2015.

Mitchell, C.V. “Four Ways Women Lead That Can Disrupt Our Trust Crisis.” The Huffington Post. July 27, 2017.

Rogan, E. “Women Leaders in Higher Education.” AACC 21st Century Center. 2016.

Williams, R. “Why We Need Empathetic and Compassionate Leaders.” LinkedIn. January 13, 2018.