Women College Presidents: Interviews about Journeys and Adaptations

Article excerpt

While the progress of women into higher education presidencies is dramatic, it is also, in the words of one experienced woman president, "not exactly a lot!" In the 15 years from 1986 to 2001, the American Council on Education (ACE) reports that the percentage of women presidents increased from 9.5 to 21.1 (The American college president, 2002). Of these women, 26.8% led two-year institutions; 18.7% led baccalaureate schools; 20.3% led comprehensive universities; and only 13.3% headed doctorate-granting schools; with the remaining 14.8% guiding specialized schools.

Higher education agencies such as ACE, American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASC&U), Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), as well as scholarly journals and presses have monitored these quantitative and qualitative changes. These publications have provided periodic snapshots about demographics and attitudes, but because the role of women in senior leadership positions in higher education is in a time of transition, it makes sense to listen at more frequent intervals to these women. In addition to giving some benchmarks about the changes, their experiences and suggestions can be particularly helpful for women who are considering presidencies.

One woman president said that "the university is just one subset of society, and the same factors that prevent women from making more progress to the top of corporations or government are also at work in education" (Glazer-Raymo, 1999, p. 157). This project looked at the ways that socialized gender roles are intertwined with perceptions about effective leaders.


Stereotypical views of men's leadership is that it is results-oriented, assertive (if not aggressive), decisive, bold, and hierarchical, much like the masculine stereotype (Eagly & Johannesen-Schmidt, 2001). Women leaders are seen as more relational, emotional, people-oriented, indecisive, and participative, all stereotypically feminine characteristics (Helgesen, 1990; Todd-Manchillas & Rossi, 1985). Effective leadership has long been traditionally associated with the masculine approach because of the perception that this kind of leadership got results. These stereotypes created the double bind for women because women who act in stereotypical feminine ways (emotional, relational) are perceived as weak leaders. If they act in accordance with the stereotypical men's approach to leadership, they are perceived as pushy, rude, and aggressive. This double bind has been documented in many occupational contexts (Cantor & Bernay, 1992, p. 74-75; Haslett & Lipman, 1997, pp. 38-42).

At the same time, critical changes have reshaped contemporary organizations (flatter structures, self-managed teams, workforce diversity, and strategic alliances). As a result, organizations require leaders with strong relational abilities and team-oriented management, skills that have traditionally been associated with women. These "people skills" are as valuable in the new corporate environment as the more traditional "masculine" approaches were to more hierarchical organizations, yet a new irony emerges (Acebo, 1994). The new paradox is that women are still not being selected for top leadership positions to the degree that the current organizational needs would appear to require (Merrill-Sands & Kolb, 2001). Some women are not selected because of the "glass ceiling," about which much has been written (Annenberg Public Policy Center, 2003; Morrison, White, Van Velsor, & The Center for Creative Leadership, 1987). In addition, women may not apply for these positions because they perceive that the glass ceiling will inhibit their success.

The Research Questions and Design

In order to take a current snapshot of women presidencies and to assemble their reflections on ways women can move successfully into presidencies, this report focused on several key questions, including some practical issues not typically included in the current literature but which may be of practical interest to women who are considering presidencies. …