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How To Stop Today’s Higher Education Exodus Of Women In Tech

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at October 17, 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across all industries and continuity relied on technology like never before. While most technology teams had been unknowingly planning for a catastrophic event like this for decades, the jarring pivot to a virtual new normal packed a greater punch than ever imagined. And it keeps on punching.

In higher education, many institutions quickly and smartly put all of their eggs in technology’s basket. Now, eighteen months later, as universities try to return to pre-pandemic normalcy, it is clear that the return is even more challenging than the original pivot and far from normal.

In reality, the demand on the information technology department has heightened today as opposed to lessened. With historically tight budgets and wildly ramped up efforts to attract and retain students, the pace is, for many, unsustainable.

And as the dust settles for this round, tech teams are running in droves to new opportunities offering more lucrative compensation packages, less stress, bigger responsibilities, better work/life balance opportunities, safer work environments or a combination thereof.

This is especially true for female tech leaders.

The impact of Covid-19 on women leaders in the workforce

According to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2021, while still underrepresented, females holding senior leadership positions was on an upward trajectory just prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Per McKinsey, while “(w)omen are rising to the moment as stronger leaders” – defined as supporting their teams, championing DEI efforts and, the all important, driving better outcomes across the board – women’s burnout levels remain on the rise.

For years pre-Covid, McKinsey research never showed women leaving the workforce at higher rates than men. Today, however, women are suddenly leaving the workforce at a higher rate than their male counterparts.

Why is this happening?

The past several years elevated the effectiveness of a ‘new’ leadership style. The empathetic leader showed a leader can be strong and effective while also modeling approachability, kindness and caring.

Shoving arrogance onto a much-needed back burner, this enviable leadership style rose up driving results, embodying strength and embracing cura personalis, the care for the whole person.

Not that both genders aren’t capable, but empathy as a leadership trait has recently been referred to as a female super power. Empathy becomes a weight during especially trying times.

How did we get here?

With little room to breathe and even less tangible support for those in university technology, the awareness that any promises of relief made to IT staff are surely more rhetoric than reality is proving to be the death knell for many female leaders.

It is critical to recognize that the burnout today’s women in leadership are experiencing is not a result of weakness, rather a result of near-unparalleled strength in driving mission-critical work coupled with a inner compulsion to support others in the process.

While empathetic leaders can competitively manage their own burnout, realizing they can do very little to realistically lessen the stress on their teams for the foreseeable future? When the care is genuine, that reality is suffocating and unsatisfying.

Tl;dr, how?

Decades of underinvesting in technology – hardware, software, training and compensation – set the stage. Doubling down on that underinvestment during this critical time is proving to be the final act. Making empty promises of relief is kryptonite to empathetic leaders.

Given the world is seeking this brand of leader, exit decisions are simply too easy.

How to respond?

Basic acceptance. Several higher educations leaders are reframing ‘the great resignation’ to a perspective of ‘the great reprioritization’.

Essentially it is acknowledging that hand-wringing over a loss of leadership does little for culture improvement. Time is better spent accepting the loss and choosing to make changes to guard against future loss. Recognizing the issue and tackling it for present and future gains. Not a bad mindset especially when the loss is in the rearview.

But what about those who prefer to stop the leadership loss before it happens?

Get ahead of the loss. Higher education’s primary mission is teaching. Teaching leads to learning. Learning leads to the development of a strong foundation often used to support successful next steps in life. Support the student where they are, they say.

However, the university staff that support those students are rarely supported where they are. Tech staff are largely underinvested in, credentialing and training is neither budgeted not prioritized, and pay increases are sporadic if present at all.

If you can’t sustain a business without investing in your employees, perhaps you’re not truly sustaining the business.

And technology staff need care, feeding and compensation. And, most critically for 2021, they need an entire, uninterrupted week off. Right now.

Your strongest leaders came to higher education for its mission. They are not leaving for better missions. They are leaving because they do not have the resources to appropriately care for their teams in your institution. And someone else is offering those resources.

To get ahead of the loss, resources need to be identified. Technology and those who lead and support it literally proved to be the unpinning of survivability in higher education; and yet its priority continues to drop.

Stop the move. We’ve known for a few years that women are gaining traction in male-dominated careers. One signal that women are breaking barriers in traditional career lanes is their movement.

According to Alan Benson, assistant Professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, “If you look at women who enter male-dominated jobs, they tend to move a lot.”

Stop the culture that requires women leaders to relocate for opportunity.

Women technology leaders were unicorns pre-pandemic; don’t lose what you’ve already worked so hard to gain.

The story is not over

A bit of good news? Higher education institutions and their governing boards have the power and ability to impact the narrative. It is not too late for interested institutions to change the storyline to one of investing in its people.

The next decade will provide clarity into the impact of the pandemic on the careers of women leaders in higher education technology. There is no doubt that technology played a leading role for most institutions. Now is the time to recognize and invest in the sustainability of the people behind those herculean efforts. Protect your investments.


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