Exploring Women’s Journeys to Leadership in International Education

May 06, 2016

By Mandy Hansen

I asked my colleagues and session attendees the following question: “What is one challenge that you’ve had, as a woman, in navigating your professional life?”

A few of the replies include:

  • Confined to one role, locked in and not supported;
  • Balancing being assertive and being perceived as “bossy”;
  • Trouble being heard and taken seriously;
  • Being a woman of color and not having someone to look up to and be a mentor; and
  • Lack of understanding of the work done: it’s viewed as “fun” and anyone can do it.

Renditions of these replies are repeated even though the audience shifts from state to state. I’ve done three different sessions on the topic of women and leadership in three different states over the past eight months, and certain themes emerge that turn a solitary experience into one that is shared among others in the room. The goal of these sessions is to open up the dialogue and validate the experiences of women.

My passion for this topic is a direct result of my doctoral research and own lived experiences. My doctoral research was on women and leadership in international education and the challenges that women leaders, specifically senior international officers, experience in regard to gender. When I conduct my conference and workshop sessions, I continue to see how eager my colleagues are to share their stories. Regardless of how much time is allocated for my workshop, my attendees and colleagues are desperate to speak their truth.

Most of my discussion points are proposed to validate experiences and offer an opportunity for participants to see that that they are not alone. Sociologist C. Wright Mills writes, “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both” (2000, p. 3). My colleagues continue to demonstrate they are interconnected and living an experience not of isolation, but one of social significance, as their threads of lived history are shared.

So, how do the stories of women in international education (and higher education in general) provide additional meaning and significance to the field of international education and the higher education communities? Our field is one that innately embraces diversity as our work fosters intercultural understanding, advocacy for international students and scholars, and the promotion of educational experiences that expose students to the world. These shared stories demonstrate that our field is dotted with other opportunities to explore difficult topics related to gender inclusiveness. Many of our international offices are supported by the work of women in entry- and mid-level positions, but how do these professionals navigate complex career journeys that require balancing one’s professional and personal lives, acquisition of budgetary fluency, and access to knowledge that only reveals itself through the membership of informal networks (think about the old-boys network)? How does one approach mentorship and advancement as a woman of color in international education? How does a woman undertake a leadership role successfully when being direct is often perceived as being “bossy”? These are not only lived personal experiences, but they are also challenges for women who are tightly woven and connected to larger societal structures.

The sharing of experiences can open a connection to systemic issues and history via a dialogue to help all leaders foster a climate of inclusiveness. Historical systems may linger and strategies for success need to be explored, but I’ll save those topics for the next blog postings!


Interested in learning more? Join me on Tuesday, May 31, from 9:00 a.m.–9:45 a.m. for my presentation, “Navigating a Maze: Exploring Women’s Journey’s to Positions of Leadership in International Education,” in the Career Center located in the Four Seasons Ballroom 4.

Mills, C. Wright. 2000. The Sociological Imagination. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


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