Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Education/Higher Education PhD

First Advisor

Katalin Szelényi

Second Advisor

Jay Dee

Third Advisor

Patricia Neilson


While women earn over half of all PhDs and hold 44% of chief academic officer positions, the percentage of women college presidents has progressed from 23% in 2006 to only 30% in 2016.The problem remains that women continue to be significantly underrepresented in college presidencies. Women seeking college presidencies are more likely to confront unique barriers, including a devaluation of women’s leadership, work-family issues, and lack of mentorship.

Because of the lack of empirical research on career pathways of college presidents, this research focused on women who did achieve college presidencies in order to understand how they are experiencing and overcoming obstacles throughout their career pathways. The study’s theoretical framework included a feminist conceptual lens and was informed by Ritchie et al.’s (1997) career development theory and Eagly and Karau’s (2002) role congruity theory.

Using a hermeneutic phenomenological approach, the data were collected primarily through semi-structured interviews with a purposeful sample of 18 women college presidents; nine interviews were conducted in person and nine over the telephone. The interviews were supplemented by field notes and additional documentation including professional resumes, video clips, presentations, and articles. Of the presidents interviewed, nine came to the presidency through academic pathways, six through administrative pathways, and three through nontraditional pathways.

The major themes pertaining to the presidents’ pathway experiences related to: (1) career transitions, (2) the role of social identities, and (3) resiliency. The challenges the presidents confronted were directly connected to their work environment, discrimination, and work-family issues. Intersectionality was strongly relevant in all the presidents’ stories. Their social identities determined how the presidents experienced events in their professional lives, including how they were positioned in relation to various power structures. Social identities discussed included gender, race, socioeconomic class, first-generation college graduate status, sexual orientation, and regionalism.

This research adds to the existing literature by offering a resiliency framework that the presidents used on their career pathways. Through a review of the findings, it became apparent that the presidents’ values/beliefs, personal and professional relationships, career decisions, and leadership approaches collectively strengthened their resiliency. Ultimately, their resilient beliefs and actions furthered their advancement and success.


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