Volume 77 | Issue 6
November 2009

Women in leadership

Julie Colyar & Trish Dillenbeck

 Within the last generation, college campuses have seen substantial increases in the number of women in leadership and management positions. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education survey indicates that women make up nearly 48 percent of senior student affairs officers and are well represented in areas such as external relations, development, community services, and diversity centers. The 2007–08 ACUI Salary Survey also shows that salary gaps between men and women in administrative positions are shrinking, and in some cases, women professionals earn more than their male peers with similar years of experience. These gains are important to recognize and celebrate. Indeed, many institutions have implemented policies that support women professionals throughout the organizational structure.

Despite this progress, however, women are still underrepresented throughout senior levels of administration, and on average women still earn less than their male peers. Women are also overrepresented in part-time positions as well as at small liberal arts and two-year institutions. According to a 2003 Innovative Higher Education article, the 1980s concept of “chilly climate”—the notion that campus environments are unwelcoming and unsupportive of women students, professional staff, and faculty—is still relevant today. Many women still encounter an invisible barrier or “glass ceiling” as they seek advancement in the field. Campus culture is important in thinking about women professionals’ experiences: Researchers have found that the environment of higher education is “male-centered” and dominated by masculine behaviors and practices. Women in leadership positions report a lack of support, feelings of marginalization, and the difficulties of balancing work and family responsibilities. Women professionals’ experiences on campus are further complicated by race and sexual identity; according to New Directions for Student Services, women with multiple minority status experience even more marginalization.

The journal Gender and Education reports gaps between campus policies and women administrators’ lived experiences. Formal policies for equal opportunity, for example, may not be met with equally supportive work environments, interactions with peers, and attitudes of co-workers and supervisors. The Chronicle Almanac indicates that women students outnumber men, and women professionals are reaching parity on campuses. However, masculine values and attitudes may dominate campus culture. In short, a campus that is balanced in terms of women administrators does not guarantee that women’s experiences are equitable. Equal representation and salary parity are necessary elements toward building supportive climates, but these factors alone are not sufficient to ensure that women’s experiences are positive.

In August 2009, women ACUI members received a brief survey asking them to comment on the presence or absence of the “glass ceiling,” campus and non-campus support systems, and their professional negotiations within the campus environment. As is evident from the survey results, the glass ceiling is still a relevant phenomenon for survey respondents, in spite of important changes across U.S. campuses.

Survey findings
Out of 1,700 women professionals surveyed, 553 completed responses for a response rate of 33 percent. Most responses came from professionals at four-year institutions. The majority of respondents identified as white (84 percent). Seven percent identified as African American, 3 percent identified as Latina, 1 percent identified as Asian, 3 percent identified as multiracial, and 2 percent identified as “Other.” These respondents represented a variety of professional levels and job types, from graduate assistants to senior administrators. In total, 423 of the respondents indicated they had been in the field five or more years; 130 respondents had been in the field less than five years. Most of the respondents, 72 percent, had completed at least a master’s degree. Eight percent had completed a doctoral degree. The majority of respondents (59 percent) directly reported to male supervisors, and 66 percent of respondents’ supervisors reported to men.

Glass ceilings

According to survey respondents, college campuses still struggle with gender equity issues: 75 percent of respondents agreed that the “glass ceiling” is still present on campuses. This statistic was the same across all experience levels. That is, emerging professionals (0–5 years in the field), mid-level professionals (5–15 years), and senior professionals (15+ years) all responded at relatively the same rate.

Across experience levels, respondents overwhelmingly identified the glass ceiling by noting the demographics of senior campus administrators. They observed that presidents, vice presidents, deans, and directors are often men. In administrative meetings, women often saw mostly men around conference tables. In this way, the university’s public “face” is still largely male. Respondents who disagreed with the presence of the “glass ceiling” described more women leaders as evidence of its dismantling. These findings, though seemingly contradictory, are in keeping with the aforementioned surveys and research. Though more women are occupying senior positions on campus—especially in particular offices—many women still find the glass ceiling a relevant construct in describing their personal experiences.

The “glass ceiling” was also evident in particular campus locations, where job responsibilities seem to be divided based on gender stereotypes. For example, respondents noted that women are less present in physical plants and budgeting offices; women are more present in areas such as diversity offices and human resources. This evidence points to a particular kind of ceiling, one that encourages women in stereotypically feminine roles and offices. Interestingly, this evidence was often reported by mid-level and senior-level respondents (five or more years in the field) but not by emerging professionals.

Respondents also indicated pay inequities as important evidence of the “glass ceiling.” In some cases, respondents noted their personal experiences of being paid less than male colleagues, even those with less experience. Similarly, respondents indicated fewer opportunities for advancement at their institutions. These comments may also relate to the perception of the “good old boys networks” some respondents identified. Women felt disadvantaged at campuses—particularly at religiously affiliated schools—where this network seems to be in place and seems to favor male professionals for promotion.

Both mid- and senior-level women also pointed toward the glass ceiling because of overt discrimination in the form of sexual harassment or disparaging comments. Again, emerging professionals did not report overt discrimination or harassment as frequently in their consideration of the glass ceiling. Most, however, expressed optimism in the direction of the field, commenting that the profession has shown remarkable progress both in the number of women in leadership and campus attitudes toward women. Many of the more experienced respondents indicated that they had seen these important changes over the years and expressed hope for future professionals. Some also noted that the environment is changing because of the important work of women who now occupy senior-level positions.

Campus challenges
Survey respondents were also asked to describe the challenges associated with professional development. Experienced professionals described past experiences, while emerging professionals anticipated challenges. In many ways, the challenges respondents articulated were similar across levels of experience. Both emerging professionals and more experienced women indicated the challenge of creating a work/life balance. Emerging professionals wondered if the long hours and weekend responsibilities might make relationships and starting a family difficult. Survey responses from the more established women validated these concerns.    

Mid-level and senior-level women provided important detail to the concerns that emerging professionals expressed. They indicated that the balance between work and family responsibilities is multifaceted. In addition to stresses associated with having young children, established women noted that balancing a dual-career relationship can be difficult as is maintaining personal relationships generally—not just with partners and spouses but also with extended family and friends. These participants also described the challenges related to negotiating a reasonable work schedule that can accommodate children’s school schedules and vacations. When women take time off work for sick children or aging parents, they are often criticized for a lack of commitment. At the same time, participants indicated that single women are often penalized for not having children or family responsibilities, being expected to attend more evening and weekend events.

Professional advancement was another area of concern for all respondents. Emerging professionals expressed concerns about obtaining an advanced degree (a master’s or doctorate) as well as the necessity of relocating to facilitate advancement in the field. Experienced women often described advancement challenges in combination with work/life balance—trying to complete an advanced degree while also working full time and taking care of young children was frequently cited. They also described challenges with a gendered angle. For example, senior-level respondents indicated that they had fewer advancement opportunities than their male peers and that they did not hear about opportunities from their male supervisors. In some cases, they indicated that they were not given promotions because of gender stereotyping—women were not considered for jobs in areas traditionally considered “male” (such as facilities) or in roles in which they would need traditionally male characteristics (like assertiveness). In some cases, respondents indicated that they were passed over for a job because of perceived family responsibilities.

More generally, gender stereotyping was a challenge that all levels of respondents indicated. Emerging professionals worried about their age and the perception that they were inexperienced; more experienced women also noted the challenge of being taken seriously because of age, gender, and being a member of a student affairs division. Results from the experienced respondents suggest that larger issues of invisibility and powerlessness are associated with their perceptions of gender stereotyping. They reported not being “heard” by male colleagues or having ideas dismissed as unimportant or lacking credibility. Some reported being interrupted in meetings or asked to get coffee or copies for colleagues.

In response to some of the challenges that survey respondents articulated, many suggested the importance of finding a mentor. Overall, 44 percent of respondents indicated that they have a mentor, and more than 73 percent of senior-level women indicated that they serve as a mentor to younger women in the field. Survey responses regarding mentoring relationships varied—mentoring is an individual process—but some similarities existed across level of experience: For most, mentors were valued as sources of support and advice, especially around career moves, perspectives on the field, and campus politics. Most also advocated for multiple mentors (both male and female), and sought mentors across institutions and from different campus areas. Mid-level women also noted the importance of role models who have successfully balanced work and family responsibilities. One of the important elements of mentoring was the aspect of connection; though mentors and mentees might not work at the same campus, e-mail, Facebook, and phone calls were cited as providing important opportunities for support.

Implications for practice
As higher education professionals, we often look for the link between research and our day-to-day practice. In an attempt to grow the profession educationally and fundamentally, the following recommendations are based on results from this survey.

Seeking balance
Most respondents mentioned the importance of establishing a balance. As stated earlier, there are several aspects to what we typically see as “work/life balance.” This encompasses family, friends, spirituality, work, professional development, professional advancement, and potentially degree advancement. A healthy work/life balance is important not only to one’s health as a professional and a family member, but also to one’s physical health. Failure to achieve balance may result in higher stress levels and strained relationships. Senior administrators advise that professionals will need to shift their priorities throughout their career. Reflecting on these priorities and understanding one’s life goals will allow for maintaining the healthiest balance possible.

Being confident and passionate
Passion and confidence are indicators of drive and competence and can affect one’s professional credibility. In this survey, women across many experience levels discussed the importance of being seen as credible or knowledgeable by peers and administrators. Many women, especially those new to the field, may experience resistance in trying to assert their knowledge because they are perceived as “green” or inexperienced. Demonstrating one’s passion and commitment, regardless of past experience, is a great way to build credibility with other professionals.

Approximately 44 percent of survey respondents had a mentor, but many others indicated the importance of having a mentor. Mentors provide insight into the field and events that happen, share information sources and key advice needed for success, and help build emerging professionals’ networks. Having a mentor is not just for students or emerging professionals; having mentors also can be helpful to mid-level and senior-level administrators.

Being a mentor is something mid-level or senior-level administrators can do to grow the profession. Mentoring is a great way to share expertise and give back to student affairs. According to the survey responses, emerging professionals look for a mentoring relationship that is a two-way street in which “real” and honest information and insight is dialogued. The traditional style of face-to-face mentoring is antiquated, as emerging professionals look to use in-person interactions and technology to build and maintain strong mentoring relationships. This includes using e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and other technologies to stay in communication with each other. It is also important to note that emerging professionals disapproved of the notion of a “know it all” mentor, preferring a panel of professionals with various backgrounds, knowledge bases, and levels of advancement to give them advice as they advance in the career.

Continuing education
Many senior administrators and emerging professionals indicated the importance of continuing education by obtaining a higher educational degree. Getting master’s and doctoral degrees is a logical step in career advancement, and although it is not the only way to climb the proverbial career ladder, it is a sturdy rung on which to step.

As an alternative to degree advancement, professional development opportunities are ways to further one’s education. These may range from attending conferences, volunteering in a leadership position in a professional organization, writing articles or presenting at conferences, or reading current publications and articles.

A culture of inclusivity
Though it is clear that women higher education professionals have made great progress in terms of salary equity and advancement opportunities, this survey also suggests that more work is needed. Equity cannot be accomplished until all women are seen as valued members of their campus communities, an outcome that is not always accomplished by increasing numbers of women in leadership positions. Campuses must look to the broader goal of creating a climate of inclusivity. Higher education professionals may recognize the importance of empowering and inspiring women on campus; however, more strategies are required than mere hiring practices and parity policies. Strategies must begin with a commitment to personal accountability and to improving one’s own ability to relate to others. The important work of our pioneering women colleagues who have helped change the face of campus leadership must be continued and supported with the confidence that women’s work environments will evolve and improve.

If you are a woman interested in being a part of the second stage of this study by participating in 45–60 minute qualitative interviews with the researchers, please e-mail jecolyar@buffalo.edu or dillentr@buffalostate.edu.