African-American Female College Presidents: Self Conceptions of Leadership

By Waring, Anna L. | Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

African-American Female College Presidents: Self Conceptions of Leadership


Waring, Anna L., Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies


This paper explores how the interaction of race and gender influences African-American female college presidents' origins and conceptions of leadership. Traditional leadership literature focuses on males as the informants about leadership. In recent years, more research has been conducted about how gender might influence leadership. However, rarely is race considered and even less frequently is there a discussion of how one's race and gender might influence one's conception of leadership. Interviews with twelve African-American female college presidents (about a quarter of all African-American female college presidents) discussed the role that social class, educational background, and the process for emerging as leaders, has had on their views of themselves as leaders. In addition, this research confirms the importance of race to these women's identities and as a motivator for assuming leadership positions.

In recent years, there have been increasing calls to understand the experiences of African-American females from their own perspectives (Hill-Collins 2000 and Giddings 1984). These authors argue that to understand fully African-American female experiences in the history of the United States, we must understand the multiple forms of oppression they encounter. As African Americans, they are subject to the racism that has been part of the American experience. As women, they are subjected to the sexism that women face in the larger population. However, much of the work that takes place on race in the United States ignores the role of gender, and much of the feminist critique of society ignores race. In their edited collection entitled, All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us are Brave, Hill, Scott and Smith (1982) address this tendency to ignore the interaction of race and gender on the lives of African-American women.

The absence of special focus on African-American women is not confined to history or feminist literature but occurs in our understanding (or lack of understanding) about how African-American women function in the workplace as well. Ella L. Bell, Toni C. Denton and Stella Nkomo (1993) point out that in the research on women in management has ignored women of color. "A review of the existing body of knowledge on women in management might lead to the observation that much of the scholarship addresses the experiences of only one group of women managers. As such, we have learned little about the effects of race and (italics in original) gender on the status of women in management positions." A recent analysis of baccalaureate degrees of successful women in all fields found important differences among African-American, Latina, and Caucasian women when analyses accounted for race and ethnicity that had been obscured when the women were treated as a monolithic group (Wolf-Wendel 1998). This research indicates, again, the importance of looking at the experiences of women of color on their own terms, not simply as part of a larger group of people of color or as women.

Purpose of the Study

As of fall 1997, there were 49 African-American women serving as college and university presidents. There were 4096 post-secondary institutions (public, nonprofit, and forprofit) during the same time period. These women comprised 1.4% of all college presidents, about 8% of all women presidents, and about a quarter of all African-American presidents. The majority (55%) headed junior and community colleges. The rest were at satellite state university campuses or Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Only one president served at a prestigious institution and she headed a woman's college. Though the number of African-American female presidents is still quite small, their numbers are increasing steadily and have more than doubled in the last decade.

The purpose of this research was to understand the origins and conceptions of leadership among African-American female college presidents. …

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