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Women Leading in Higher Education: Career Development for Women Seeking Executive Levels

Center for Women
October 28, 2018 Mary Wallace University of Alabama at Birmingham

At rates higher than men, women’s career trajectories are delayed in the executive-level leadership positions (McCauley & Velsor, 2004; Dhar, 2008; Hoobler et al., 2011).  The reasons are varied; my own reasons included the care of children and a husband with a disability. Ironically, I chose to pursue doctoral studies to remove barriers as I planned next career moves.  The idea of balancing it all or work-life balance can seem far-fetched to women who are working and caring for children and/or parents. Women in the highest levels of the academy are less likely than male counterparts to be married or have children (ACE, 2016), illustrating that perhaps there is a choice women make to advance their career; choices that men do not make at the same rate.  This statistic can be challenging for a woman in the workplace: When do I choose to forward my career? How will my choices of focusing on family impact my next move? The fact that women are less represented in higher level leadership positions than men, although entry and mid-level pipelines are saturated with women (ACE, 2016), presents opportunities to create unique career development opportunities for women seeking upper-level roles.  New programs promoting career development for women focus on unique situations and characteristics women bring to the workplace. Participating in intentional activities that develop competencies and confidence for next levels assist women preparing for and anticipating career moves.

Below are a few strategies to manage a career development plan for women in higher education:

  • Attend the Women’s Leadership Institute presented by NASPA, in partnership with several sponsors.  The Institute is in its 12th Year, and provides mentoring, networking, and educational opportunities for women who are considering career movement.  Resume review and interview critiquing are available at the Institute.

  • NASPA’s Alice Manicur Symposium focuses on women in mid-level positions who desire mobility to Vice-Presidents of Student Affairs.

  • Women in Student Affairs connects women throughout the profession, and to the profession through NASPA.  WISA provides resources and research on women leaders in higher education.

  • Coaching/Mentoring at professional conferences such as NASPA, ACPA, ACUI, ACUHO-I, NACE, and others.  Smaller networks at these conferences create opportunities for informal one-on-one or small group gatherings, rich with coaching from upper-level administrators.

  • Finding women at your own university – looking for women’s circles, leadership seminars and conferences, and community events celebrating the diversity of women leaders.  Since Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, many universities are embracing women circles focused on professional development for women, by women.

  • Finding a personal mentor or sponsor who is willing to introduce you to people, opportunities, and universities fitting your career aspirations and development plan.

Consider these strategies as you prepare for your next career decision:

  • Resume:  Make sure your resume is up-to-date.  Have someone with resume writing expertise critique your resume.  

  • Current Trends:  Read the Chronicle and scholarly articles regarding current issues of the day.  Understand how these issues impact your own campus, and how you would discuss, address, and add solution to the issue.

  • Job Search:  When you are ready, apply for jobs that fit your career path and personal goals.  Be selective in your search, and treat your job search like a job in-and-of itself.  I found an excellent place to start the job search is with professional search firms such as Spelman and Johnson.  These executive search firms work with pipelines to create deep candidate pools for universities.  Spelman and Johnson understands and are committed to diversifying executive positions, to include women.

  • Mentors and Supervisors:  Stay in touch with individuals who can attest to the work you do and are willing to serve as reference.  My mentors and supervisors were instrumental in encouraging me to apply, to take a risk in my career, and championed me throughout the process.  Staying in touch with mentors and supervisors helps to solidify relationships leveraged for your career advancement.

Moving from the upper-level management to the executive-level can be intimidating.  I often wondered if I was enough: smart enough, talented enough, good enough. Nothing can substitute for solid preparation:  performing well in your current position, learning from mistakes, and intentionally developing a career path. I found that once I was able to articulate my progressive career trajectory with confidence (and with a little nudge from mentors and coaches), I was ready to launch a job search seeking an executive-level position.  


ACE American Council on Education.  (2016). Pipelines, pathways, and institutional leadership:  An update on the status of women in higher education. Washington, DC:  ACE

Dahr, R.L. (2008).  Leadership in the management institutes:  An exploration of the experiences of women directors.  The Indo-Pacific Journal of Phenomenology, 8(2) 1-15.

Hoobler, J.M., Lemmon, G., Wayne, S.J. (2011).  Women’s underrepresentation in upper management:  New insights on a persistent problem. Organizational Dynamics, 40, 151-156.

McCauley, C.D. & Velsor, E.V. (Eds.) (2004).  The Center for Creative Leadership Handbook of Creative Leadership Development (2nd Edition).  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.

Mary Wallace serves as the Assistant Vice President for Student Experience in the Division of Student Affairs at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  Prior to her arrival in 2017, Mary also served as a student affairs administrator in various roles at Louisiana State University, Texas Woman’s University, University of Tulsa, and the University of Arkansas at Monticello.