Breaking barriers in higher education: An exploration of female presidential leadership at six selective institutions

Richard John Gatteau, Fordham University


Traditionally, United States colleges and universities have selected white, middle-class men as their presidents. More recently, women have made progress in reaching the highest levels of administration. While still relatively few in number, women presidents are changing the landscape of higher education. Over the last few decades, the number of women in leadership positions has increased steadily. Today, women comprise about 16% of the chief executive officers employed in academe. Little research, however, exists about female presidents employed at selective higher education institutions. This study explores the evolving role of women college presidents. Specifically, the study reviews current literature about female leadership, including critical and social change leadership theories, the status of women presidents, and the debate over the existence of a glass ceiling for women educators. The research focuses on six women presidents at selective higher education institutions in the Northeast United States. This qualitative inquiry explores four areas of leadership, including career path to the presidency, leadership qualities and values, the impact of gender on leadership, and presidential commitments and challenges. Based upon individual interviews, observation, and document analysis, the researcher makes several conclusions. First, the women respondents follow traditional professor routes, serve a minimum of 15 years in the academy, and are appointed having served in a previous presidency or as a senior administrator at another selective institution. The respondents also note some barriers in their ascension to the presidency. Such barriers, most often framed as challenges by the women presidents, include a lack of female colleagues, sexist remarks, and community/faculty negativity and skepticism. Second, the women leaders, while different in appearance and demeanor, reflect a composite of eight leadership qualities: (a) developing a vision, (b) serving as a symbol and role model, (c) working collaboratively, (d) fostering open communication, (e) building community, (f) delegating responsibility, (g) taking risks, and (h) maintaining perspective. Third, the women presidents report several common goals: (a) demonstrating a commitment to the mission, (b) developing a comprehensive curriculum and promoting academic excellence, (c) promoting social justice and civic service, (d) advocating diversity, (e) strengthening the institution's financial position, (f) building good faculty relations, (g) building good community relations, and (h) developing the institution's identity and status. Finally, several respondents discuss the evolving mission of higher education as less insular and more community interdependent and globally focused. This outward focus includes infusion of substantial financial and human capital resources into local and regional communities to create higher levels of economic prosperity and social justice.

Subject Area

Higher education|School administration|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Gatteau, Richard John, "Breaking barriers in higher education: An exploration of female presidential leadership at six selective institutions" (2000). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9975349.