Reaching the top of the leadership ladder can be a strenuous process for any woman, as biases and barriers still exist in many workplaces. These can affect how many women eventually get a seat at the table within their selective organizations and industries and worse, may deter some from attempting in the first place.

Although we’ve steadily seen more women rise to leadership roles over time, there are still low numbers of women in senior leadership across industries. This is true in my field of higher education, as women comprise of only 30% of president positions at colleges and universities across the U.S.

Speaking from personal experience, it’s not always easy to overcome biases or barriers at work. I noticed these challenges early on in my professional life and it made me wonder if it was possible for me to become a leader at a university. Over the course of my career, I implemented three important principles that helped me stay on course to accomplish my goals, and I challenge you to try them as you work toward earning a seat at the leadership table in your respective industry.

Follow your passion

While the phrase “follow your passion” may seem cliché, I have found that my passion has not led me astray in regard to my career.. I found a passion for education at a young age while both of my parents worked at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and growing up only minutes from campus. As my passion grew stronger, I realized I could turn my passion into a career and began taking steps to get there.

I began this journey by accepting opportunities that felt meaningful and exciting. By doing this, I realized that by following my passion and investing in the success of students, my work became more than just a job. I found courage in taking these opportunities without any hesitation or fear. I was confident in myself and my ability and that  made taking these leaps of faith much easier.

For some, following your passion can also mean furthering your education. Many people return to school to gain the skills and qualifications needed to move up in their career. Education is power. It exposes us to more knowledge and experience and gives us the ability to reach higher.  Minority groups, including women, can use higher education to their advantage to overcome inequality in the workplace.

Focus on yourself instead of the biases you face

Another key moment in my career journey was when I shifted my focus to how I would overcome the biases I faced in my workplace rather than the biases themselves. An example of this was when I became a working parent alongside my husband. During that time, I realized there were different perceptions between working mothers and working fathers.

Working moms are expected to be the “CEOs at home” by taking care of everything on the home front. For working fathers, it felt like the opposite. It felt like they were expected to prioritize their work over home life so they can provide for their families. At times, this cultural expectation affected both my personal and professional life as I felt I wasn’t giving full effort or focus to either. There came a point where I decided to block out those thoughts and focus on doing my best at work and at home. Being honest with myself about this situation and how it affected me provided clarity and eventually helped me move past this bias. It became a learning experience for my career instead of a barrier, which gave me much more confidence in my ability to balance my career and to grow my family.

If you face a bias at work, it’s important to be honest with yourself, your colleagues and the situation. Understand the issue in its entirety and how it affects you personally. If it’s an important enough issue, have a conversation with your colleagues or supervisors to clear it up. This not only helps you overcome it, but can also help the organization grow and work to prevent a similar situation in the future.

Value Your Support System

We all need guidance throughout our lives and careers, which means leaning on your support system. This could be family, friends or coworkers – anyone that’s supporting you on your journey. It’s important to maintain an open mind when it comes to your support system as they will likely offer constructive advice along the way, whether it’s the advice you want to hear or not. They want to help you succeed. It’s also vital to not be afraid to be honest, curious and ask them questions.

Three of the most important people in my support system are my mother, grandmother and former Chancellor of WGU Indiana, Allison Barber. My mother and grandmother have always been my personal support and both have given me a fresh perspective on life outside of the office. Allison has become my professional support as we share many of the same situations in the workplace. Having this variety of perspectives has helped me grow as a person. All three are hard working women who have faced and overcome adversity throughout their careers.

These three have also taught me the importance of giving back and being a leader for the next generation of young people, especially young women. The phrase, “leave the world in a better place than how you found it,” is something I often reflect on and and apply now as a leader at WGU Indiana. Don’t forget how much you valued the guidance and assistance your mentors gave you and how much they helped you along the way. It’s important to share your knowledge so future generations can be best prepared for their own journey. For example, Allison answered any questions or concerns I had, and showed me the ropes of leadership in higher education. She also did countless hours of community service, which inspired me to begin serving on various educational councils. Lean on your network when needed, and remember to also share that same guidance and support to others.

Alison Bell is Chancellor at WGU Indiana.


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