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The Glass Ceiling in the Academy: The Lived Experience of Female College Presidents

Lydia B Camara, Johnson & Wales University


While women may occupy the majority of administrative roles on college campuses, the glass ceiling persists as an obstacle for female leaders aspiring to the presidency (Warner et al., 2018). The American Council on Education (ACE, 2017a) reports that as of 2016, women represented 30% of college presidents in the United States. Although the number of female presidents has increased slightly over 10% in as many decades, these data show that the increase is largely reflected in associate-granting and special-focus institutions (ACE, 2017a). Given the dearth of female college presidents, this phenomenological study explored the lived experience of female college presidents and their perceptions of the glass ceiling along their pathway to the presidency. Recognizing that society traditionally views leadership traits as male oriented, (Ekine, 2018; Enloe, 2017), the conceptual frameworks of Role Congruity Theory (RCT) and Social Identity Theory (SIT) informed the design of the study and interpretation of the findings to address this dissonance. Thus, the following overarching research question guided this study: What is the lived experience of female college presidents regarding their journey to becoming a college president? Primary participants comprised retired female college presidents (N=9) with varying years of experience as a president, who represented two-year or four-year institutions within the Northeast. Content experts (N=2) provided context for the study. Reflective questionnaires followed each presidential interview (N=5), and analysis of extant documents (N=75-100) supplemented primary data sources. Moustakas’ (1994) analysis strategy was applied to interview data; content analysis (Krippendorff & Bock, 2008) was applied to all extant documents. A researcher-generated essence statement of the lived experience of female college presidents was grounded in the data. Four themes emerged from the data: 1) The Curved Path, 2) You. Need. Friends!, 3) Watch Out for Landmines, and 4) Better, But Still No Piece of Cake! Campus stakeholders may benefit from learning how to support female presidents in their roles, as well as promote gender parity within their institutions. Furthermore, findings may inform the governing boards regarding the policies needed to dismantle structural barriers to female advancement in the academy.

Subject Area

Higher Education Administration|Educational leadership|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Camara, Lydia B, "The Glass Ceiling in the Academy: The Lived Experience of Female College Presidents" (2022). Dissertation & Theses Collection. AAI30525295.