Navigating University Politics: A Guide for Women of Color Executives in Higher Education

Higher Ed Leadership Series

Navigating political environments is far from unique to higher education, but the political landscape inside a higher ed campus can be a delicate dance. As women of color executives in higher education, we often find ourselves facing unique challenges when it comes to navigating university politics.

Not only is it challenging to be a woman in these roles, but the nagging feeling of being “the only” woman of your race is hard to ignore. You want to make a good impression and prove yourself worthy of this role. Still, while battling self-doubt and imposter syndrome is one thing, there’s another layer to this journey as a woman of color– the need to save face and “be the bigger person” even in the face of microaggressions or blatant disrespect. 

That’s why it’s essential to recognize that you are not alone in these struggles. In this article, we’ll explore practical tips for navigating university politics while addressing these challenges commonly experienced by WOC executives in higher education.

Understanding the Political Landscape:

Before diving into strategies for navigating university politics, we must acknowledge some common issues we face. Many of us grapple with feelings of self-doubt and imposter syndrome, questioning our qualifications and whether we truly belong in our leadership roles. Confronting these challenges head-on and recognizing the power of solidarity and community among WOC executives is essential to your success. 

No woman is an island. Finding your support network can be difficult, especially if you’ve recently moved schools to accept this higher role. You may feel isolated in a sea of faces who don’t look like yours, feeling as though you can’t possibly relate to anyone around you or rely on this new network of people.

When it comes to university politics, we often walk a tightrope, struggling to balance the need to assert ourselves with the pressure to conform to societal expectations. This can manifest in situations where we are expected to remain composed and diplomatic, even in the face of disrespect or microaggressions. 

Saving Face and Being the Bigger Person

One of the unique challenges faced by women of color in higher ed is the expectation to “save face” and “be the bigger person” in the face of disrespect or mistreatment. This can be especially difficult when navigating university politics, where power dynamics are often at play. 

We find ourselves in situations where we are either forced to tolerate disrespect and suppress our reactions or be labeled as “difficult” or “aggressive” for bringing attention to these moments.  This expectation is unfair and can take an immense toll on one’s mental and emotional well-being. 

Navigating University Politics & Disrespect: said it best, “Workplace politics are certainly not unique to higher education, but it’s often amplified on college campuses with so many constituencies wanting the attention and resources to serve their students and departments.”  While saving face and being the bigger person can be a challenging and sometimes wholly unfair expectation, there are strategies women of color can employ to navigate disrespect in university politics (or anywhere else, for that matter). 

Here are a few tips for navigating disrespect at a professional level:

  1. Setting Boundaries: Clear boundaries for acceptable behavior and communication are crucial in navigating disrespect. Clearly communicate your expectations to colleagues and peers, and confidently enforce boundaries when they are crossed. This may involve calmly but firmly addressing disrespectful behavior at the moment or following up with a private conversation to discuss the impact of the behavior on you and your work.
  2. Seeking Support: It’s essential to have a support system in place to lean on during challenging situations. Reach out to trusted colleagues, mentors, and support networks for guidance and validation. Having allies who understand your experiences and can offer perspective can provide much-needed reassurance and empowerment when navigating disrespect in university politics. 
  3. Advocating for Change: Use your voice and platform to advocate for a more inclusive and respectful environment within your institution. This may involve speaking up in meetings or committees about the importance of respectful communication and behavior and challenging systemic issues that perpetuate disrespect and inequality. By advocating for change, you not only create a more positive environment for yourself but also pave the way for future generations of WOC leaders in higher education.
  4. Practicing Self-Care: Navigating disrespect in university politics can take a toll on your mental and emotional well-being. Prioritize self-care practices to maintain your resilience and well-being in the face of adversity. This may include setting aside time for activities that bring you joy and relaxation, practicing mindfulness or meditation, or seeking support from a therapist or counselor. Taking care of yourself allows you to show up as your best self and continue advocating for change with strength and determination.

University politics can be complex and challenging to navigate, but there are strategies we can employ to navigate them successfully. Understanding the power dynamics at play and honing conflict-resolution skills while still honoring our values and self-worth allows us to navigate political landscapes while maintaining authenticity and integrity.


For women of color executives in higher education, navigating university politics requires resilience, grace, and commitment to self-advocacy. By acknowledging our unique challenges and developing strategies to navigate them effectively, we can assert our leadership and drive positive change within our institutions.I invite you to join me in further dialogue and community-building among WOC leaders in higher education. Our virtual peer support group, Legacy Builders: WOC Executives in Higher Education Circle, is designed specifically for WOC in higher education leadership roles. This is where you’ll find your tribe of women who understand exactly what struggles you’re facing and offer strategies to navigate these challenges. In this group, we share experiences, support one another, and empower each other to reach new heights of success.

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