Coming Full Circle: Mid-Career Women Leaving Administration and Returning to Faculty

By Luna, Gaye; Medina, Catherine | Advancing Women in Leadership, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Coming Full Circle: Mid-Career Women Leaving Administration and Returning to Faculty


Luna, Gaye, Medina, Catherine, Advancing Women in Leadership


"Leaving administration is part of the career cycle. However, if universities listened to those women who left their administration, they would have a better understanding of the problems facing their future and current female leaders and how to handle their exit, when time."

Depending on how the numbers are viewed, women administrators have either made impactful strides in academe of they are still facing barriers to access and promotion in the administrative ivory towers. Reports show the numbers of female leaders in higher education administration have risen, but whether these data are dramatic or not is more complicated. Numbers may not tell the entire story of women as leaders as their roles and status in academe can be viewed from a variety of social patterns, institutional cultures, and power structures, creating a complex web not simple to digest.

Women administrators at U.S. public institutions increased by less than 1% from 1978 to 1987, from 21.3% to 22.3% of executive positions ("Climbing the Ladder Very Slowly," 1990). In 1998, women held 24.3% of university and college presidencies, a change of only 3.5% since 1986. By 2001, the success of women in administration showed mixed progress ("Women College Presidents Share Success," 2001; see also, Office of Women in Higher Education, 2002), and the increase in top female administrators was found mostly in public colleges, not research and doctoral institutions, with significant growth in community colleges. Most female presidents headed schools with 3,000 or fewer students, with the situation explained: "The culture of the community may be less accepting of women in general, but it can be particularly harsh for single and minority women" (in "Women CollegePresidents Share Success," 2001, para. 9). The American Council of Education found the most difficult road for women seeking administrative positions in higher education was the one where race and gender intersect: "Women of color are underrepresented in academic administration and not just because they're newer to the pipeline. Prejudice and marginalization bar them from mid- and senior level campus jobs" (Office of Women in Higher Education, 2002, p.1).

Coming full circle, from faculty positions and a return to faculty positions, females interviewed for this article provide a missing piece in the literature on women leaders in higher education - mid-career decisions to leave administrative positions and return to their academic roots of faculty. This study shares interview data from 12 women who have voluntarily or involuntarily left their academic affairs administrative positions and re-entered faculty ranks at their institutions. The voices of these women provide rich insights into why and how mid-career women leave administration and their perceptions of these experiences. Few higher education studies have focused on the end of females' administrative experiences, and the researchers feel the main reason for the dearth of literature is the continuing struggle for female entrance into administration, especially at upper level positions. After a comprehensive review of literature, the authors found only one study that addressed specifically and qualitatively women exiting administrative roles in institutions of higher education (Schmuck, Hollingsworth, & Lock, 2002).

Review of Literature

Some researchers believe the organizational and cultural environments of colleges and universities remain distinguished by traditional, bureaucratic, and male-oriented structures (Brooks & Mackinnon, 2001). Within this context, the position of women leaders remain tenuous - women are "...still largely excluded form much of the power brokering" (Blackmore & Sachs, 2001, p. 63) in higher education institutions, and women's leadership often remains marginalized and unrecognized. Glazer-Raymo (1999) concluded, "Ultimately, the institutional culture of most universities is not compatible with the needs and concerns of women in academia" (p. …

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