Liberal Education

The Women's Leadership Program: A Case Study

The glass ceiling is firmly intact in academe at the start of the twenty-first century. Because the academy perceives itself as an institution that emphasizes objectivity, fairness, and merit as the basis for evaluation, discrimination may be particularly hard to recognize in academic institutions. The many facets of the academic culture make it difficult to address gender equity in academic leadership. Decentralized decision-making, with academic hiring, promotion, tenure, and workload decisions occurring at the department level, further impede the ability of university administrators to affect equity issues. Finally, current times of increasing financial constraint can make gender equity seem like an unaffordable luxury. Kearney (2000), sums up the current state of gender equity in the academy:

Universities have the dubious privilege of likely remaining the most male-dominated establishments in the world in relation to career advancement. This lack of concordance between universities and other major social institutions is a serious matter for reflection and redress.


An examination of data on women's status as academic administrators coupled with an understanding of the typical academic culture shows the enormous challenge in creating gender equity in college and university leadership. In academe women's presence is scarce at decanal levels and higher. Women hold 27 percent of all deanships, with their leadership of professional colleges being especially unlikely. Only 8 percent of all law school deanships and 3 percent of medical school deanships are held by women (Glazer-Raymo 1999).

Women are 15 percent of chief academic officers in the academy, but 70 percent of these positions held by women are in colleges with fewer than 1,000 students. Women chief academic officers are rarely found in research and doctoral universities (Glazer-Raymo 1999). Women comprise 19.3 percent of all presidents of colleges and universities in this country, yet 70 percent of these women presidents head schools with 3,000 or fewer students, religious or women's colleges, or two-year institutions. Only 2 percent of all women presidents head major research universities (Wenniger and Conroy 2001).

Not only are women concentrated at lower administrative levels in colleges and universities, but they are disproportionately represented at the lower academic ranks as well. Women hold 18.7 percent of full professorships and 55.6 percent of lecturer positions in this country (Firestone 1999). The situation is even more bleak for minority women who occupy less than 5 percent of all faculty positions and 7 percent of all administrative positions (Rai & Critzer 2000).

Additional gender disparity exists in the area of university governance. Women spend more time in service to their universities than men, but they still form a minority voice on important decision-making committees and are less likely than their male counterparts to chair decision-making or policy-formulating committees (Morley 1999; Twale and Shannon 1996).

Given these data, it is not surprising to find lower levels of satisfaction among female than male academics. Eighty-four percent of senior level male faculty compared to 57 percent of senior faculty women report perceptions of fair treatment on campus (Altbach and Finkelstein 1997). As a consequence of women's underrepresentation in senior academic and administrative positions, the Carnegie Foundation has highlighted the lack of opportunities for women to change educational policy (Morley 1999). Since only senior-level administrators make and change policy, the absence of women at these levels makes equity in policy making a rare consideration.

The Women's Leadership Program: A Case Study

The University of Cincinnati, a public, Research I, multicampus university has embarked on the Women's Leadership Program (WLP), a four-year initiative that attempts to provide redress for the limitations of the glass ceiling on our campus. This case study presents the origins, purpose, structure, activities, budget, outcomes, challenges, and future directions of the Women's Leadership Project at the University of Cincinnati.

Program Origin. The idea for the WLP developed from an on-campus conference session that explored the reasons for and impact of the relatively few women in central administration at our university. In 1999, women comprised just 18.7 percent of the deanships and 0 percent of the vice-presidents and provosts at the University of Cincinnati. Indeed, when associate deans, associate vice-presidents, and vice-provosts were counted, women still comprised just 23 percent of all such administrative positions. A group of twelve women became a self-appointed steering committee to try to improve these statistics.

Program Purpose. The primary objective of the WLP was to increase the number of high-level women administrators at the University of Cincinnati. In order to do this, we developed a program that would provide key leadership experience coupled with structured learning in higher education administration to a small number of the most highly placed academic and administrative women on our campus. By providing women with the opportunity to practice leadership skills in temporary administrative assignments while receiving learning and networking support, we posited that a larger pool of qualified, experienced women leaders would be available to assume administrative positions on an interim or permanent basis as well as to staff key decision-making and governance committees on campus. By providing a forum for women to demonstrate their leadership competence, this program made the issue of gender equity in leadership visible and subject to discourse at the highest levels of the institution.

Program Structure. The WLP Steering Committee consisted of twelve women who were formal leaders or informal opinion leaders from across the campus. The group included two deans, two vice-provosts, an associate vice-president, a former vice-provost, a former director of the university honors program, a retired controller, the chair of the women's faculty association, the chair of the university's commission on the status of women, and other visible and vocal women on campus. We solicited project endorsement from the major women's organizations on campus, including the Association of Women Faculty, the Association of Women Administrators, and the Commission on the Status of UC Women. By initially including virtually all the key women and organizations on campus, this ad-hoc, grass-roots group was able to present a unified proposal to top-level administrators for their support and funding.

Program Activities. The WLP included two basic types of activities: leadership workshops and administrative internships. Initially, we developed a fourteen-hour series of workshops to acquaint participants with issues of higher education in general, to provide information on our specific institutional environment, and to enhance women's professional development and career planning skills.

Workshops covered such topics as decision making, leadership styles, university finance and budgeting, university mission, enrollment management, entrepreneurship, assessment, technology, and career development. Women who had completed the workshop series were then eligible to apply for temporary administrative internships on campus so they could try out an administrative role without jeopardizing their current university position. Their home departments received funding to replace them during the period of the internship.

Program Budget. For start-up monies, the Steering Committee approached two vice presidents and two provosts and received a total of $34,000 to fund a one-year pilot project. By approaching four different offices for funding, the contribution from any one office could be minimal and we could leverage the first contribution to lobby for subsequent contributions.

Program Outcomes. During the pilot year, fifty-seven women applied to participate and twenty-four were admitted. To be eligible, academic women must have held a rank of associate professor with tenure, must have had three years experience at UC, and some prior administrative experience. Administrative women must have held the minimum title of director, a mid-level grade or higher, a master's degree, and three years experience at the university. These criteria were purposely stringent so that we could attract women with the greatest potential for obtaining central administrative positions. In the first year, nine women completed internships in such administrative areas as the provost offices, research and advanced studies, human resources, student services, and college offices. The interns themselves, often with the support of steering committee members, negotiated the specific internship objectives and assignments with the administrator in charge of the office in which they wished to intern.

The pilot project received substantial visibility because some forty key administrators, the majority of whom were male, conducted the workshops, and we made sure that the university newspaper gave regular coverage to the project. Indeed, the president of the university, who had not been scheduled as a workshop presenter, indicated that he would like to deliver the final workshop of the series.

The steering committee used various forms of assessment to measure pilot project outcomes. All workshop participants completed a rating instrument. This form of evaluation revealed that 100 percent of respondents were either very satisfied or satisfied with the workshop series. We completed face-to-face interviews with interns who reported strong satisfaction with the program. We received such comments as:

  • "This was an incredible opportunity. I hope that many more UC women are able to experience the internship."
  • "I had the opportunity to observe first hand the priorities of the institution."
  • "The internship experience was a life-changing event for me."
    Additionally, we solicited a written, open-ended evaluation of the program from the internship supervisors. From the mentors, we received such comments as:
  • "I would certainly take on another intern. It was of value to the college and to the individual."
  • "The university needs more women administrators who can assume line responsibility positions, and involvement in such a program can provide just that."

The promotion of program participants into administrative roles was yet another indicator of program success. In the first year alone, five graduates (20.8 percent) of the WLP received promotions. Three assumed associate deanships (regular or interim), one became an associate vice-president, and one left the university to become a corporate director of marketing.

Because of the success of the pilot program, the president provided an additional three-year budget totaling $156,000. The workshop series has expanded to thirty hours with networking dinners included after each workshop. At the end of the project period, some eighty-five women will have graduated from the WLP. Several spin-off projects have evolved with women other than Steering Committee members taking the leadership for related initiatives. We now have a WLP alumni group that brings corporate, educational, and non-profit women leaders to campus as speakers. We have an informal networking group of women with young children regularly discussing work-life balance issues. Each year, a celebratory dinner is held, with a distinguished external speaker for all WLP graduates, intern supervisors, and top-level administrators. The provost office has established a Women's Initiatives Network that provides coordination and advocacy for all campus women's projects involving students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Currently, 29.4 percent of the deanships at the University of Cincinnati are held by women and two more women have assumed vice provost roles since the WLP's inception.

Keys to program success

There are many factors that account for our modest success in increasing the number of women administrators at our university. First, we garnered campus-wide support from key women and top-level men on campus. Frankly, we made it nearly impossible for anyone to oppose the project. By strategically choosing to function as an ad-hoc group rather than to have a direct reporting role in the university structure, we retained freedom, flexibility, and an ability to move quickly. We designed a credible, stringent program to develop women as leaders and to attract the attention of the campus at large. Our program is cost-effective in that all workshop presenters are drawn from internal sources, with no associated speaking fees or travel costs.

Having women with and without academic appointments participate together has created a new dialogue and a cross-fertilization of ideas. There have been intangible educational benefits of having some forty administrators as workshop leaders who publicly analyze their leadership roles and administrative relationships. Women's issues and women's leadership have gained recognition and momentum on campus. While the glass ceiling has not been dismantled at the University of Cincinnati, the culture of the university is moving in the direction of greater gender equity.

Challenges and future directions

While the Women's Leadership Program has been relatively successful in meeting its original goals, the project is not without its challenges. Now that the program is in its third year, we are exploring a permanent home for it within the university. Independence was useful for project start-up, but credibility, continuity, and clerical support needed to maintain the project would be enhanced by moving it into the university structure. Another unexpected challenge has been the dissatisfaction from many mid-level administrative women, who have few development opportunities in the university, but who do not quality for this program. They have criticized the WLP for its elitism or exclusivity, and the university has not developed a comparable leadership development program for these women.

In order to maintain program viability and energy, the Steering Committee is planning to move to a regional program in conjunction with other public and private colleges and universities in Southwest Ohio. We will plan, with other interested institutions, revised workshops that address higher education issues more generally. We will need to rotate workshop locations across the local geographic area and enlist speakers from all participating institutions. Questions of revised eligibility criteria, internship placements, program assessment, and regional funding must be addressed.
Given the paucity of women in central university administration nationwide as well as the gender-related climate and satisfaction issues affecting academe generally, regional cooperation for gender equity makes sense. With the financial constraints faced by institutions of all types, the sharing of resources and expertise for improved university leadership offers a collaborative model of success.

Cynthia Berryman-Fink is a professor of communications; Brenda J. LeMaster is professor of professional practice, and Kristi A. Nelson is vice provost for academic planning at the University of Cincinnati

Works Cited

Altbach, P. G. and M. J. Finkelstein, 1997. The academic profession: The professoriate in crisis. New York: Garland Publishing Company.

Glazer-Raymo, J.1999. Shattering the myths: Women in academe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Firestone, J. M. 1999. Women, men, and job satisfaction in academia: Perceptions of a glass-ceiling among faculty. In M. McCoy and J. DiGeorgio-Lutz, eds. The woman-centered university. New York: University Press of America.

Kearney, M. 2000. Women, power and the academy: From rhetoric to reality. New York: Berghahn Books.

Morley, L. 1999. Organizing feminisms: The micropolitics of the academy. New York:St. Martin's Press.

Rai, K. B. and J. W. Critzer. 2000. Affirmative action and the university. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Twale, D. J. and D. M. Shannon,. 1996. Professional service involvement of leadership faculty: An assessment of gender, role and satisfaction. Sex Roles, 34, 117-126.

Wenniger, M. D. and M. H.Conroy. 2001. Gender equity or bust. San Francisco:
Jossey-Bass Publishers.

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