Educational Administration, Department of


Date of this Version


Document Type



Journal of Women in Educational Leadership, 2021

doi: 10.32873/unl.dc.jwel.2001


Copyright © 2021 Sarah L. Smiley, Andrea G. Zakrajsek, & Kathryn L. Fletcher


Although the number of women holding administrative positions in higher education has risen over the past two decades, the gender gap in academic leadership in higher education institutions persists. Barriers exist to prevent women from entering these positions, including those related to workplace culture and personal considerations. This qualitative exploratory study interviewed 38 women leaders in positions ranging from Assistant Dean to President at universities in a mid-west athletic conference. It asked the following research questions: How did they enter academic leadership? What were their experiences in leadership positions? What advice would they offer to other women considering leadership positions and what skills should they foster? These women described diverse journeys into their current academic leadership positions. Although every woman described a unique journey, few entered academia with the goal of transitioning from faculty to administration and instead became accidental leaders. Their experiences in these leadership positions included accomplishments, especially around student success, but also tangible, intangible, and self-imposed inequities. They recognized the value leadership development including formal mentoring, informal advice, and systemic training but also indicated receiving inadequate amounts of this development. This study offers implications to recognize, support, and foster the presence of women in academic leadership positions.