Higher Learning Commission

A Mission-Conscious Women’s Leadership Seminar to Boost Institutional Effectiveness

Debra K. Mooney and Sandra Richtermeyer

Organizational effectiveness and leadership are intertwined and critical to the success of academic institutions (Wang and Berger 2010). This reality is reflected within the Higher Learning Commission’s Criteria for Accreditation (Higher Learning Commission 2013) in the following ways:

Criterion 1.C.2: The institution’s processes and activities reflect attention to human diversity as appropriate within its mission and for the constituencies it serves.

Criterion 3.C.4: The institution has processes and resources for assuring that instructors are current in their disciples and adept in their teaching roles; it supports their professional development.

Criterion 3.C.6: Staff members providing student support services, such as tutoring, financial aid advising, academic advising, and co-curricular activities, are appropriately qualified, trained, and supported in their professional development.

Criterion 5.B: The institution’s governance and administrative structures promote effective leadership and support collaborative processes that enable the institution to fulfill its mission.

To support institutional effectiveness through the growth and advancement of women leaders, we developed and co-facilitate a unique seminar, the Women’s Leadership Salon. The seminar builds capacities and confidence through a socio-emotional dialogical approach. As summarized in Wikipedia, Salons, which “flourished in France throughout the 17th and 18th centuries,” were gatherings held “to refine the taste and increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation” and with a purpose similar to that of poetry, “to please or to educate” (Salon 2015). Both are fitting intentions for this seminar—hence, the title “Salon.”

The need for women-specific professional development has been outlined by Bruce Peltier (2010, 259):

  • Gender differences are often real and significant.
  • The performance of organizations with greater gender diversity is stronger than those with less.
  • Women do not have the same access to informal networking.
  • Women and men do not fare the same way in the workplace. 

This fact was illuminated relatively recently within higher education by two incidents pertaining to women in the sciences. One involved a peer reviewer’s statement that a study that was conducted by two female researchers would be better if it had a male co-author (Bernstein 2015), and the second involved the resignation of Nobel laureate Dr. Tim Hunt for sexist remarks he made at a conference about the “challenges” of women in laboratories (Greenberg 2015).

The design of the Women’s Leadership Salon was inspired by the findings of Walvoort (2009; and expanded on with A. Leimon—see Leimon, Muscovici and Goodier 2011) addressing strategies to overcome barriers to women’s advancement. They are networking, role models, confidence, an understanding of one’s own strengths, family and career balance, corporate (or organizational) culture, systematic investment in career and development and career planning. The approach to these barriers—hence the title “Salon”—is dialogical and reflective rather than a [deficit] skills-based focus.

Topics covered in the Salon include personal strengths, early leadership lessons (i.e., socialization), impression management, stereotype threats, institutional culture, networking, role models and heroic and virtuous leadership. The general format for each topic involves brief information sharing by the co-facilitators, small-group discussion on specific reflection questions that focus comments on the participants’ personal experience of the topic and large group conversation.

The format is highly adaptable. We have offered it as a three-hour colloquium for women graduate students, as both a four-hour gathering and two-part, five-hour meeting for faculty members and staff members at our university, as well as a 1.5-day conference of 30 women representing the seven Jesuit universities constituting the United States Midwest Province and Southcentral Canada. Given that “networking” is one of the best strategies to support women’s advancement, this multi-institution Salon capitalized on the shared mission and identities of the Jesuit universities and strengthened [network] connections benefitting the individual women, the universities and the Jesuit Province network.  

All Salons are structured in a way that clearly connects the content to the university’s mission in ways appropriated to the participants. When engaging women within the Jesuit higher education network, this is reflected in the use of the title “The Women’s Ignatian Leadership Salon”—with Ignatian referring to the founder of the Jesuit order.

Salon participation is by invitation so that each cohort includes women from a breadth of departmental specialties and from traditionally underrepresented groups. Cohorts do not include women that have a direct reporting relationship with each other to support freedom of discussion. The size of each cohort ranges from 14 to 35 women; small-group conversation is organized for three to five women.

Attendees are asked to engage in preparation for about an hour, which includes skimming articles of choice from a list, posted online, under the categories of “Leadership Characteristics,” ‘”Culture–Ethnicity–Race–Sexual Identity–Socialization,” “Topical,” “Mission,” “Advancement,” “Articles Recommended by Saloners” and “Women in ‘A Corner Office’ (or All Advice Is Autobiographical!).” The last category includes links to five of the most recent columns highlighting women CEOs from the Sunday edition of the New York Times. In addition to their brief time of inspired reading, they are invited to use the “Corner Office” column as a model to craft an article about themselves. This activity is effective in supporting reflection on personal leadership experiences. The articles are shared and discussed in the Salon.

As follow-up, attendees are offered a “thinking partner” for three one-hour conversations on their professional reflections that arise subsequent to the seminar (i.e., one-on-one leadership support and coaching from a co-facilitator who is a licensed clinical psychologist).

Participant feedback indicates that the time and opportunity to gather is highly valued; as this example commonly shows: “This was the first opportunity that I have had to have conversations in a setting with all female colleagues, which has been quite helpful in learning that many of them share many of my same concerns—I appreciated the openness of the group.” Following are five typical responses to the question, “In a year from now what one thing will you remember? What is your take-away?”:

  • Women want to help each other by sharing their own experiences. I can find support through each woman that came to the Salon.
  • As a woman, I am not alone in this struggle. There are others who face many of the same adversities that I do. I take comfort and find strength to become a better manager/leader.
  • I will draw upon the wealth of knowledge and experience in the room. I was moved by the passion of the women to strive to make things better—I learned not to not be so hard on myself if I make a mistake.
  • Finding a way to vent my anger—very important—and using the gifts already at hand.
  • I need to write and reflect more! How dedicated my colleagues are to their goals and strategies and students.
  • How we all from different areas have such similar challenges. We need to use each other as resources!

In summary, borrowing a style important during the Age of Enlightenment, a Salon approach to developing confidence and abilities through personal reflection and communal sharing is a highly effective approach for career women.


Bernstein, Rachel. 2015. PLOS ONE ousts reviewer, editor after sexist peer-review storm. Science, May 1. www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/05/plos-one-ousts-reviewer-editor-after-sexist-peer-review-storm.

Greenberg, Alissa. 2015. Embattled Nobel Scientist Tim Hunt Resigns After Sexist Remarks. Time, June 11. http://time.com/3917390/science-chauvinism-sexism-tim-hunt-resigns-university-college-london.

Higher Learning Commission. 2013. The Criteria for Accreditation. Chicago: Author.

Leimon, A., F. Moscovici, and H. Goodier. 2011. Coaching women to lead. East Sussex, England: Routledge.

Peltier, B. 2010. The psychology of executive coaching: Theory and application. New York: Routledge.

Salon [gathering]. 2015. Wikipedia. Last modified November 12. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salon_(gathering).

Walvoort, J. G. 2009. Overcoming barriers in female career progression: The importance of strategies and social or individual learning. Unpublished dissertation, London School of Economics, Institute of Social Psychology.

Wang, V. C. X., and J. Berger. 2010. Critical analysis of leadership needed in higher education. International Forum of Teaching and Studies 6 (2): 3–12.


About the Authors

Debra K. Mooney is Chief Mission Officer, and Sandra Richtermeyer is Associate Dean, Williams College of Business, at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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