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Leading As an African American Woman During COVID-19

As early as mid-March 2020, most colleges and universities shuttered their doors and shifted to remote learning for their students because of growing concerns regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. With closed campuses, higher education professionals also shifted to working remotely while still maintaining required student services such as admissions, academic advising, career support, and financial aid. International students who couldn't leave the country still resided in on-campus housing. As duties shifted to working remote, it required campus leaders to reimagine how they manage their staff to ensure that required and essential work continued for enrolled students. 

For most higher education leaders, being in the same physical space as their staff was conducive for managing projects, supervising staff, and providing training or professional development. My 20+ years in higher education has been spent at the same private university located in the Midwest. My career has always involved significant student engagement and I currently lead an office of seven student service professionals. As the stress and challenges of working remote persisted because of COVID-19, the nation also grappled with ongoing calls for equality and justice for minorities and marginalized people. During these unprecedented times, leading a team remotely had its challenges, but those challenges were further compounded as a female African American leader. 

African American women in leadership roles remain stagnant at PWIs

Even though the number of African American women who obtain college degrees continues to increase, the number of African American women in leadership roles at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) remains flat. For African American women who gain access to the dean’s suite, research shows ongoing experiences of marginalization and isolation on their respective campuses (Warren-Gordon and Mayes, 2017). With most universities working remotely, feelings of marginalization and isolation increased for African American women. This new way of working for African American women shaped how we executed our duties and led our respective teams.

With the limited number of African American women in decision-making and supervisory roles at PWIs, how they lead might be evaluated differently because of the focus on traditional white male leadership models. While there is research available on the lived and professional experiences of African American women in faculty roles at PWIs, there is limited research that focuses on this same topic for African American women in non-faculty roles. The propensity for schools to evaluate African American women in leadership roles through a biased lens created further complications with remote work.

Campus-based work provides a critical lifeline for African-American woman leaders

When faced with professional challenges on our campuses, African American women could meet with or reach out to colleagues for support and feedback. While on campus, African American women took advantage of the proximity of their colleagues for an in-person talk about the challenges they were facing in their roles. These types of small and informal gatherings provided support and helped build a sense of community for African American women. A goal of these gatherings was to create a supportive environment where participants could freely speak on their specific issues and challenges without suffering repercussions.  

Participation in affinity groups can help address feelings of isolation

Participation in an affinity group as a form of community building has the potential to reduce feelings of marginalization and isolation through the gathering of people with shared identities facing similar challenges in the workplace. With a shift from leading in person to leading while working remote, this was not the time to disengage from your campus affinity group. In fact, it is during this time of working remote, when feelings of isolation and marginalization are ever present, that you should recommit yourself to remaining connected with professional campus peers, seek out ways to expand your affinity group, and continue to develop your leadership through professional development (West, 2015).

Being deliberate about creating opportunities to connect

There is no reason why your campus support system cannot continue to meet while working remote. Put on your calendar a time to reach out to a colleague for a one-on-one conversation. With numerous communication tools, consider scheduling a twice-monthly gathering of your campus support group. These gatherings can be informal in nature or topic-driven. For example, share a relevant article on an issue related to higher education that can be discussed by the group or arrange for a guest speaker to talk about issues of concerns of the group members. To expand the campus group and offer support to colleagues, consider a mentor program for newer staff members on campus. Even while working remote, it is critical to continue spending time on professional development. With the inability to host in-person conferences, many professional organizations are offering free to low-cost professional development virtual workshops. This is the time to commit a few hours a month to ongoing professional and leadership development.

Connection is the key to supporting African American woman leaders

With the ongoing need to work remote during COVID-19 and increasing demands to address systemic racism, African American women who work on predominantly white campuses continue to experience feelings of isolation and marginalization. While continuing to work remote or hybrid, it is important to remain connected to campus colleagues to reduce feelings of isolation and marginalization especially if it hinders your professional and leadership development.

Works Cited

Warren-Gordon, K., & Mayes, R. (2017). Navigating the Academy: An Autoethnographic Approach to Examining the Lived Experience of African American Women at Predominantly White Institutions of Higher Education. The Qualitative Report, 2356-2366.

West, N. M. (2015). In Our Own Words: African American Women Student Affairs Professionals Define their Experiences in the Academy. Advancing Women in Leadership, 108-119.

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