Exploring the Personal Perimeters of Women in Higher Education Administration: A Qualitative Study

Maureen A. Guarcello
University of San Diego

In celebration of our 40th Anniversary, members of the Standing Committee for Women are pleased to sponsor a Series in Developments. Our Series, “Women As,” explores how women’s intersecting identities (race, class, gender expression and performance, sexuality, religion, etc.) impact women’s experiences in different roles. Thus, authors share their ideas as women who are leaders, faculty, caregivers, and/or students. In support of a feminist approach to research and learning, articles will reflect an array of insights including practical strategies, research findings, lessons learned, arts-based research, visual inquiry, narrative inquiry, and reflections. We encourage you to utilize the discussion questions included in each article to stimulate your thinking and enhance your work in the classroom and/or workplace.

Former United States State Department official and university dean Anne-Marie Slaughter (2012) set digital records on The Atlantic magazine’s website with the release of her article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” This piece attracted more unique visits in a 24-hour period than the magazine experienced for any published article to date. The reflection upon Slaughter’s own experiences as a mother and professional appeared in the publication’s July/August edition, received 450,000 unique website hits, and more than 75,000 Facebook recommendations (Associated Press, 2012). Slaughter (2012) cites her own experience as dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs among the examples and challenges of motherhood coupled with a high-powered career.

Slaughter reflected upon how the dean’s role provided her flexibility to spend time with her children, compared to the professional and political undertakings she took on after she left her position at the university. She notes, however, that even as dean, attempts to balance work and family were challenged by faculty who explicitly balked when she mentioned her roles and responsibilities at home. Faculty considered her rhetoric to diminish the perceived “gravitas” the dean position required. As the first woman to be dean of the school, Slaughter disagreed with the faculty and any notion that women could not be productive participants within both the professional and the domestic spheres.

Slaughter’s experience highlights the need to further define the connections and boundaries women encounter while navigating professional roles within higher education administration and their personal lives outside of the workplace. This article presents a qualitative research study about female university administrators and work-life balance. It begins by describing the current context and theoretical perspectives that underlie the research, briefly outlining the methodology, and then addressing the findings and their application. This study may help the higher education community gain a deeper understanding of factors that impact women working in higher education administration roles.

Current Context and Theoretical Perspectives

Arguably, women are keeping colleges running. From roles as professors to university presidents, women occupy academic and administrative positions (Webb, 2010). Women have been tapped to head the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, Harvard University, and recently, Brown University. Brown’s newest president, Christina Hull Paxson, succeeds another woman, Ruth J. Simmons, who also served as the first Black Ivy League president (Stripling, 2012).

Although the press highlights the few women who accept presidential roles in higher education, there are also a number of leadership positions, including academic deans, assistant deans, and department chairs, where men remain the predominant gender. Given the significant role that university deans play in the governance of higher education, it is surprising that so little is known about these mid-level administrators and the experiences of the women who serve in these roles (Rosser, 2003). Research and literature surrounding women in higher education indicate women are getting stuck in the middle ranks, despite their education and aptitude (Cheung & Halpern, 2010; Dominici, Fried & Zeger, 2009; Eagly & Carli, 2007).

Work-life balance is often a factor that challenges women in higher education and top-level executives (Cheung & Halpern, 2010). This study begins to address the knowledge gap surrounding female higher education administrators and work-life balance. This research is especially important since women occupying dean and director roles are valued by faculty and staff as being more effective leaders than men in the same positions (Rosser, Johnsrud & Heck, 2003). A richer understanding of the challenges faced by women in administration also contributes to an understanding of retention and continued success of women in institutions of higher education.

Purpose and Methodology

The purpose of this qualitative study is to explore the experiences of women in higher education administration, focusing upon female academic assistant deans who are negotiating work-life balance and the boundaries of their professional lives.

Three research questions guided the study:

  1. In what ways do women who serve as assistant deans negotiate their professional and personal responsibilities?
  2. What obstacles have women who serve as assistant deans faced pertaining to their professional aspirations over time?
  3. What on-campus interventions have been useful for women who serve as assistant deans in negotiating their professional and personal obligations over time?

This study focused upon the entire population of female assistant deans at a private, four-year university, located in southern California. Eighty-three percent of the academic assistant deans at the university are women, and no more than two assistant deans represented the same college, school, or unit. The five women who participated were demographically diverse and represented a range of professional expertise and career stages. This variation allowed for a more comprehensive study (Patton, 2002).

A semi-structured interview guide framed both the focus group and the individual interviews. Five primary questions were posed during the 90-minute focus group. A 30-minute follow-up in-person interview was conducted with each participant the following day. After interviews were complete, notes and audio recordings from the focus group and individual interviews were grouped, coded, and analyzed to identify themes, similarities, and differences in the experiences of the assistant deans (Patton, 2002). Data were analyzed thematically, employing a provisional coding technique (Saldana, 2009).

Findings: Themes Emerging from the Data

Major coding themes were mentioned 10 or more times in the focus group. These included time expectations and scheduling, spouses and spouse support, personal growth, point person for problems, and setting boundaries and prioritization. Minor themes emerged from the data when participants mentioned them seven to nine times throughout the focus group. Minor themes represented strategic alliances on campus, children, dean’s impact upon role, student support as part of the role, technology, and assistant dean input and authority.

Three dominant themes emerged during the focus group and the individual interviews beginning to suggest why women in assistant dean roles may not move to a different position in university leadership. The first finding was both a surprise and a delight: to discover that perhaps these professionals were satisfied, as opposed to stuck in their roles.

When assistant deans were asked how they felt about their current position at the university and if they felt stuck, all of the women responded that they were happy with their role and could move freely if they chose. This finding counters the literature that points to women being stuck in mid-level higher education positions. Three of the five women in the study possess terminal degrees, making them eligible for faculty and tenure-track positions within the four-year institution. See Table 1 for each assistant dean’s professional and educational experience.

Table 1

Assistant Dean Experience and Education

Assistant Dean Years in Current Role Highest Degree Eligible for Tenure
Rosie 27 years EdD Yes
Tiffany 10 years MA Not at this institution
Mary 5 years MS Not at this institution
Julie 5 years PhD Yes
Priscilla 1 year, 6 months JD Yes

There was not a strong interest in moving up into the dean role, which may indicate that the assistant dean role represents an actual or perceived balanced occupation in higher education administration. One participant shared, “It’s a great career for people who want to balance their lives with something other than … just your career.” The assistant deans perceived limitations to the dean role surrounding time commitment and an aversion to university fundraising outreach.

The second finding delves deeper into the work-life balance theme, discussing where work ends and family begins. Each participant discussed the importance of family, but some of the women chose to have children and some chose not to have children. This is the area where the assistant deans shared the most difference in the ways they manage their demanding work schedules. One woman shared how her role allows her to spend time with her children, while another shared her choice not to have children, in part to support her career trajectory. The conversation that followed included this statement from Priscilla, who made a choice not to have children. “I have made a conscious choice in my life not to have children…I never want there to be a division with people that have children and don’t have children.” Priscilla’s comment was followed by Mary, who shared “I’m the one with kids at home that need me. If I sacrifice work time for family, then I am also going to sacrifice some family time for work.”

The third finding demonstrates that each of the assistant deans takes great pride in her work and the level of service she provides to the institution. Table 2 illustrates thoughts shared by each assistant dean shared about the position.

Table 2

Research Participant Thoughts on the Role of Assistant Dean

Mary addresses values and work life balance: “We are in this job because of who we are at home also. You know, that’s part of what we bring to it. The importance of family and the caring for others and all of those things that are important to us at home are important to us at work, the core values.”
Julie addresses creativity and authority: “You really get to think outside the box.”
Rosie addresses dean transitions: “It’s hard to go through those transitions…those are the hardest moments so, definitely, anyone will tell you, because someone gets used to you, they know you…but when a new person comes in, there’s always people that, and I don’t blame them, you know, that want to see changes, and they want to see change in your position too. So, you know, you have to prove yourself all over again. It takes about a year and half.”
Tiffany addresses surprises and problems: “That’s why I like my job. It’s never the same!”
Priscilla addresses work life allowances and children: “Women are leaving in droves to have kids and unfortunately they have to leave. I mean, that’s not fair. Higher ed does allow us to do that, to make those choices and to support one another.”


The focus group and follow-up interviews addressed the first two research questions in the study. Findings included themes surrounding spousal support, children and family activities, boundary-setting, and personal development. The third research question regarding how on-campus interventions may help women negotiate professional and personal obligations was not addressed. The remaining research question presents an opportunity for more research to learn how human resources and work-life balance or wellness workshops incorporate into the work lifestyles of female assistant deans.

The most significant finding from the study was learning that, counter to the literature, these assistant deans are satisfied with their roles. From one to 27 years of experience, the women shared that they have a great deal of responsibility and they have a strong commitment to their student constituents. The original purpose of this research was to learn more about the reasons why women, in this case assistant deans, move or do not move within the university administration ranks. The research participants were forthright and honest about their reasons for pursuing and maintaining their respective assistant dean positions, sharing the personal balance and professional satisfaction the roles brings them.

Limitations and Applications

This study represents a sliver of a larger picture dealing with gender, culture, higher education administration, and leadership. Each of these components is conditional, often unclear, and can be represented in a number of ways. The research from this study aims to begin informing factors in a layer of leadership which has not been widely studied.

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s (2012) article signifies the beginning of a larger, practitioner-based dialogue between genders, pivoting around the notion of having it all. Continuing to investigate what work-life balance means within the context of academic practitioners, and developing a better understanding of how female assistant deans came to be in their roles is a critical step in understanding support and retention efforts for women in the higher education community.

Discussion Questions

  1. Where does my own personal life intersect with my professional life, and how?
  2. How do I work with others when I recognize they are negotiating the personal-professional perimeter?
  3. How can higher education practitioners continue to proactively prepare for women administrators who will face these same obstacles?


Associated Press. (2012). Record hits on mag’s ‘Can’t Have It All’ story.  Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=155598678

Cheung, F.M., & Halpern, D.F. (2010). Women on top: Powerful leaders define success as work
+ family in a culture of gender. American Psychologist, 65, 182-193.

Dominici, F., Fried, L.P., & Zeger, S.L. (2009). So few women leaders. Academe, 95(4).

Eagly, A.H., & Carli, L.L. (2007). Through the labyrinth: The truth about how women 
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Patton, M.Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods. London: Sage

Rosser, V.J. (2003). Faculty and staff members’ perceptions of effective leadership: Are there
differences between women and men leaders? Equity and Excellence in Education, 36
(1), 71-81.

Rosser, V.J., Johnsrud, L.K., & Heck, R.H. (2003). Academic deans and directors: Assessing
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Saldana, J. (2009). The coding manual for qualitative researchers. London: Sage Publications.

Slaughter, A.M. (2012).  Why women still can’t have it all. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Stripling, J. (2012).  Brown U. taps Princeton dean, an economist, as its next president. The
Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Brown-U-Taps-Princeton-Dean/131064/

Webb, J.G. (2010). The evolution of women’s roles within the university and the workplace.
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About the Author

Maureen A. Guarcello is in the dissertation phase during her final year of doctoral study at the University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences. Maureen has more than a decade of academic, student, and external affairs experience at California State University, Long Beach; University of Hawaii; University of California, San Diego, and University of San Diego. Her leadership and higher education research is focused specifically upon gender and blended learning.

Please e-mail Inquiries to Maureen A. Guarcello.

Follow Maureen A. Guarcello on Twitter @mguarcello


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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