Date of Award

Fall 12-2012

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational Studies and Research

Committee Chair

Lilian H. Hill

Committee Chair Department

Educational Studies and Research

Committee Member 2

Aubrey K. Lucas

Committee Member 2 Department

Educational Studies and Research

Committee Member 3

Amy L. Chasteen Miller

Committee Member 3 Department

Anthropology and Sociology

Committee Member 4

Thomas V. O'Brien

Committee Member 4 Department

Educational Studies and Research


Although from 2006 to 2011 the percentage of women college and university presidents increased from 23% to 26%, the critical problem remains that women continue to be disproportionately under-represented at the highest levels of university leadership, especially the presidency. Also problematical to women’s advancement, women are less likely to hold the key-line administrative positions (e.g., academic dean, vice president, chief academic officer/provost) that serve as pathways to the presidency.

In response to the dearth of empirical data on the career paths of university women leaders, the purpose of this research, grounded in a postmodern feminist theoretical framework, was to qualitatively explore how women key-line administrators and women university presidents experience and make meaning of their career paths and leadership/presidential aspirations. Additionally, this study examined how personal factors (e.g., childrearing, marriage, etc.) influenced women leaders’ career paths and leadership aspirations.

Using a basic interpretive qualitative design, the primary technique for data collection involved 16 in-depth, semistructured interviews with a purposive sample of university women key-line administrators (12) and university women presidents (4) employed at various types of public and private universities located across the Southeastern region of the United States. Also, a document review was conducted of personal (e.g., curricula vitae/ résumés) and official (e.g., published speeches) documents which provided first-hand accounts of the participants’ career path experiences. Then, to ensure the trustworthiness of the findings, a peer examination was conducted of the research findings.

The data analysis revealed five major thematic categories relating to the participants’ (a) career paths and educational credentials; (b) leadership aspirations; (c) experiences with mentors, role models, and/or professional networks; (d) family relationships and work/life balance issues; and (e) perceptions of gender and leadership. Significantly, the overall research findings of this study provide new and deeper insights into: (a) the participants’ unique, unintentional, and emergent career paths to university leadership; (b) the factors that served to motivate and/or hinder participants’ leadership aspirations; and (c) how personal factors (e.g., family relationships, etc.) influenced many of the participants’ career choices and leadership aspirations. Finally, major implications for research, theory, and practice are presented.