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How to Help Successful Women of Color Overcome Cultural and Institutional Barriers: 10 Recommendations for University Leaders to Be Catalysts for Positive Institutional Change

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Institutional Culture

How to Help Successful Women of Color Overcome Cultural and Institutional Barriers: 10 Recommendations for University Leaders to Be Catalysts for Positive Institutional Change

Historically, women have been disenfranchised in many ways across societies around the globe. The US is no exception, especially when it comes to the role that women play as academic leaders in higher education. Women of color fare even more poorly across university campuses at a time when demographic changes pertaining to race, ethnicity, and gender are evolving. In this context, institutions of higher education (IHEs) committed to a more socially just agenda should do all that is possible to narrow the gap of who is securing academic leadership roles in higher education. Even when progress has been made to have more women in academic leadership positions, IHEs preparing to welcome a new student demographic need to be intentional about removing barriers that keep deserving women of color from advancing in academic roles.

At times, however, leaders may be missing the mark by not properly engaging in an in-depth internal scan of the human resources and capital already on their campuses. Leaders can provide opportunities to support faculty of color in their professional advancement, which can lead to increased faculty retention and employment satisfaction. Taking this action matters as students of diverse backgrounds want successful role models who look just like them. Stories of success intended to attract faculty, staff, and students of color need to be included and celebrated across the overall linguistic landscape of university campuses. Only then may the new student demographic start believing that academic and professional success can be, indeed, achieved.

Leading with attention to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) is not always easy. Leaders at all institutional levels who truly wish to support their faculty of color, particularly women of color, should ensure that they know who may be interested in moving into academic leadership roles. True and effective leaders are rarely born effective leaders. They are made. Some may appear to come with inherent traits of success. That scenario is often the case when individuals have been part of networks where they have had access to outstanding role models and mentors. Often, talent among faculty of color, especially women, gets overlooked. These professionals may not realize that what got them to their initial roles at an institution may not get them to other (higher) positions there or elsewhere, as Goldsmith and Reiter (2007) would probably say. Climbing the leadership ladder often requires support from others. Here is where leaders truly committed to the advancement of women of color at their institutions can take steps to ensure the success of others.

Leaders who wish to make a difference also need to be cognizant that what some women of color may need is sponsorship, which requires efforts beyond being a trusted mentor. Thanks to a pipeline growing more than ever before (albeit slowly), many women of color are already successful at securing tenure and advancing in rank. But opportunities for advancement in academic leadership are not always present and may be limited. Sometimes, when opportunities emerge, there may already be a plan to recruit external candidates, so the competition may require internal candidates to take a different approach to have a fair chance of landing a new leadership role.

Furthermore, for a variety of reasons, successful women of color in academia may not always verbalize their desire to move into academic leadership roles. When that is the case, they may not even be on campus leaders’ minds, as there is often an assumption that once an individual secures tenure and achieves promotion to full professorship, they have achieved all they hope to accomplish. What many leaders fail to realize is that not everyone is content to plateau. On the contrary, for some, reaching this level of professional success may be just the starting point to keep growing professionally at an institution that the individual knows well. This is where established leaders can play a role by reaching out to women faculty of color and starting a conversation about their leadership aspirations at the institution.

Even in higher education, understanding organizational politics matters. Those in leadership roles probably figured that out already. As Vaillancourt (2021) states, “The reality is that good things tend to come to those who have honed their ability to navigate organizational politics” (p. ix). But not everyone understands how to skillfully navigate these systems right from the start. The question for us, then, is, What makes a difference? Why is it that women, especially, women of color, continue to be underrepresented in leadership roles in higher education? It seems to me that we have not only a pipeline problem but also a cultural problem—one that only those who occupy leadership roles and are well versed in organizational politics can help overcome.

Below I offer 10 suggestions for how leaders can prepare successful women of color to navigate a new professional and exciting path in academic leadership:

  1. Open your door (literally and figuratively) and proactively engage with the women of color among your faculty.
  2. Assess their interest in pursuing academic leadership roles. Do not assume that women of color will come to you or that they will not be interested in an opportunity related to academic leadership.
  3. If the answer is affirmative, make it a point to both mentor and sponsor those women or connect them with others who can assist with either type of support. Presumably, you are an accomplished and trusted leader, and trusted leaders can help the cause for women of color who wish to advance by helping them develop, expand, and nurture a social and professional network with others in academic leadership roles.
  4. Help them understand your institution’s political and organizational culture and offer your perspective on how to best navigate relationships that can serve them and, ultimately, position them for success!
  5. Encourage them to identify potential mentors outside the institution as mentees will likely benefit from casting a wide professional network.
  6. In addition to suggesting local and institutional resources, allocate (or advocate to your superiors for the allocation of) funds that can support the women of color you have identified in professional development beyond the institution. Women of color often need those resources to build or enhance their credentials to make their case as to why they merit an opportunity.
  7. Whenever vacancies arise, consider those who could benefit from filling them on an interim position. Women of color need practical experiences in academic leadership so they develop their narratives with facts that testify to their leadership qualifications.
  8. Show that you care and build trust by engaging in authentic conversations with those you have identified as potential leaders. You can accomplish this by sharing your professional challenges and successes as an academic leader and discussing strategies that helped you overcome issues you encountered along the way. Engage in conversations around academic leadership that provoke a rich professional exchange to help these potential leaders practice for when an interview or opportunity arises.
  9. Establish an accountability metric to ensure that women of color are represented and incorporate the metric into a proactive DEIJ culture.
  10. Proactively identify and recruit women of color for potential leadership positions not only within your department, college, or division, but across campus when possible.

As an academic leader, you can be a catalyst for change by supporting successful women of color who wish to further develop and advance in academic leadership roles. Your institution will thank you for your involvement and investment in helping develop future leaders. Those you have helped advance will look at you with gratitude and appreciation and will likely follow your example and do the same for others in time. Let’s be sure to lead by example.

As a woman of color, I hold my supporters—mentors and sponsors within and outside my institution—in the highest regard. I will remain forever grateful to each of them. Very much inspired by leaders that I have met along the way and those that I have yet to meet, I have made it a personal and professional goal to help other women of color advance and achieve their professional goals. Everyone who enjoys success should lead the way and support others in achieving success as well.


Goldsmith, M., & Reiter, M. (2007). What got you here won’t get you there. Hachette Books.

Vaillancourt, A.M. (2021). The organizational politics playbook: 50 strategies to navigate power dynamics at work. Wheatmark.

Fabiola P. Ehlers-Zavala, PhD, a first-generation scholar of Hispanic background, is a professor of English at Colorado State University, where she has held several academic leadership roles, including academic director and executive director of English language programs. She served as president of the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL), 2022–2023.


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