Spring Leadership Exchange Feature: Breaking the Second-Generation Glass Ceiling

The following excerpt was taken from "Breaking the Second-Generation Glass Ceiling", published in the Spring 2017 edition of Leadership Exchange magazine. 

Just a few months into the presidency of Donald Trump, we look back on the tumultuous and contentious election season as a metaphor for the constant change that leaders face on a regular basis in their personal and professional lives. Within academic institutions, those changes include the installation of a new administration, the merging or closing of academic units, and the latest student movements or crises. 

Female student affairs leaders aspiring to and currently holding senior positions in higher education administration face these and numerous other challenges and opportunities. The question of how we manage these issues, particularly as women leaders in times of change, raises some important insights and lessons.  In my work with senior professional women, I teach a module focused on managing visibility as a leadership tactic. Managing visibility is a critical competency that empowers and positions women leaders. In this article, the meaning of managing visibility and ways in which women vice presidents for student affairs (VPSAs) can employ this strategy are discussed.

A Landscape Built For and By Men

The landscape of higher education is dynamic and complex with calls for new ways of viewing core missions, innovative strategies for soliciting and receiving funding, optional formats for the delivery of instruction, and dynamic issues confronting an increasingly diverse student body. The need for new perspectives on leadership and management in higher education has never been greater.

But higher education institutions are “inherently gendered organizations and systematically reproduce the social and cultural processes that create inequality within the academy,” wrote Ane Turner Johnson in 2014 in the journal Educational Management Administration and Leadership. Institutions of higher education are governed by masculine practices and leadership norms that historically have served to exclude women, particularly from senior positions. The numbers of women in higher education administration speak to the exclusion of women from the top levels in academic institutions. In 2014, Dana Dunn, Jeanne Gerlach, and Adrienne Hyle reported in the International Journal of Leadership and Change that women represented 22 percent of all four-year university presidents, 40 percent of all chief academic officers, and 43 percent of all other senior administrators. These figures are not limited to the United States; Johnson’s study of women’s leadership in higher education administration in sub-Saharan African countries offered similar numbers in Ghana, and researchers have reported similar disparities between men and women in senior positions in New Zealand. Clearly, women worldwide enter an uneven playing field in their quests for senior positions in higher education. For many women, there is still a boundary to the top of higher education organizations: The glass ceiling is a resilient barrier.


NASPA members, read the rest of the piece in the online edition of Leadership Exchange. Not a NASPA member? Learn how to become one