Sora H. Friedman couldn’t help but notice the difference: Nearly all of the students in the master’s program in international education at the School for International Training Graduate Institute, where she is chair, are women. When she would go to professional conferences, however, many of the speakers were men.
That observation led Friedman to author a chapter on gender and leadership in international education, just published in The Wiley Handbook of Gender Equity in Higher Education
. Not long before International Women’s Day, Friedman and I hopped on Zoom. Women are achieving greater parity in the field, she told me — for example, she found they hold half of the leadership positions in groups like NAFSA, AIEA, and the Forum on Education Abroad — yet challenges remain. Here are some excerpts from our interview.
On key takeaways from her survey of women in the field:
Women are achieving senior leadership today, but often the title is not executive director, dean, provost, or president. Women are managing large staffs, they are managing budgets worth millions of dollars. They’re handling crises that are the purview of a senior leader — you’re not going to have an entry-level person handle a situation if a student dies on study abroad. But because they’re working in large universities, especially, they’re three or four levels down from the top. So they’re not seen as senior leaders.
Many of the women were also not giving themselves credit. We don’t see our successes clearly. I call for a reframing of the term leadership based on what somebody is doing, and not what their title is. Because if we understand leadership by professional responsibility, many, many more of these women who responded would qualify, and they would answer the question, yes, I am a senior leader.
On the multiplicity of experiences:
One woman arrived in a new country in a senior leadership role. She had a meeting set up with her counterparts at a local institution. She knew enough culturally that she had a gift for them, and they had a gift for her. When she opened it up, it was a tie. They knew that she was a woman, but they still couldn’t wrap their mind that a tie might not be appropriate. And she kept that tie in her office as a reminder of the challenges she had faced and how far she had come in spite of assumptions that others would make about her based on gender.
It’s important that we not assume everybody has one experience. There were a couple of stories where gender was an advantage, such as a woman who was working in the Mideast, where there were women’s only schools. if she had been a man, she would not have had access to the students or for research. So in that case, it was just exactly the opposite.
I have not experienced gender pushback professionally in 35 years in the field. I have been promoted, I have been sought out, I have been supported, I have mentors who are both men and women.
On what can be done to advance women in the field:
There was a lot of discussion about the need to be a mentor, to be a coach. To pay it forward, whatever we’ve received.