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Acting in the Academy: The Lived Experience of Female Interim Leaders in Higher Education

Jennifer Boulay, Johnson & Wales University


Women comprise the majority of both the college-educated workforce (Fry, 2019) and higher education professionals (Silbert & Dubé, 2021), yet a proverbial glass ceiling remains intact for female leaders within this industry (Bichsel & McChesney, 2017; DeFrank-Cole et al., 2014; Diehl & Dzubinski, 2016; Gagliardi et al., 2017; McChesney, 2017). While the number of female senior leaders has increased in recent years, the academy remains a male-dominated sector (DeFrank-Cole et al., 2014; Diehl & Dzubinski, 2016; Eveline, 2004; Gagliardi et al., 2017). Further, female-led executive roles are concentrated in community colleges compared with scant representation in other types of institutions (Edwards, 2017; Gagliardi et al., 2017). One path to advancement occurs through temporary appointments, which can groom internal candidates for long-term leadership positions (Browning & McNamee, 2012; Farrell, 2016; Huff & Neubrander, 2015). Yet, women seeking advancement in the academy often face unique obstacles, including the institutional environment, personal circumstances, and invisible but impactful rules (Airini et al., 2011). These obstacles can inhibit female-interim leaders in many overt and covert ways. In the absence of significant research regarding female interim leaders, the experiences of these individuals remain unheard. Thus, the purpose of this hermeneutic phenomenological study is to explore the lived experience of women in mid- and senior-level interim leadership roles in the academy. The guiding research question is: RQ1: How do women describe their lived experiences as interim leaders within higher education? Using purposeful and snowball sampling strategies, phenomenological interviews were conducted with women who have served in mid- and senior-level interim leadership roles (N=11), supported by interviews with key informants in confirming/disconfirming roles (N=2), and reflective questionnaires (N=6) incorporating photo elicitation. Thematic analysis (Moustakas, 1994) was applied to identify emerging themes. An essence statement was constructed by the researcher to capture participant’s lived experience. Findings from this study may assist women in the academy who are considering temporary administrator roles as an opportunity for advancement, so they may make an informed choice in accepting and navigating such a role. Further, this study aims to provide guidance for institutions in supporting women who occupy these types of leadership roles.

Subject Area

Higher Education Administration|Higher education|Educational leadership

Recommended Citation

Boulay, Jennifer, "Acting in the Academy: The Lived Experience of Female Interim Leaders in Higher Education" (2022). Dissertation & Theses Collection. AAI29169886.