NACE Journal, May 2019
The authors partnered on a study to investigate the leadership aspirations of women in higher education and industry and the barriers they face in advancement. In “Leadership Aspirations of Female Middle Managers in Higher Education and Their Barriers to Advancement,” a doctoral dissertation published in 2019, Nicole Rodriguez addressed increasing aspirations of women in higher education to advance to top leadership roles and the disparity between their rates of achievement compared to those of men. This article is based on findings of that joint study and insights and results Rodriguez and Tosha Giuffrida detailed in their dissertations.
Although women outnumber their male counterparts in college enrollment and graduation,1 women hold only 25 percent of senior leadership positions across the world.2 In investigating the reasons behind this gap, the authors partnered to examine the aspirations of female middle managers and their barriers to advancement both in higher education and in industry. The mixed-methods study examined how female middle managers perceived their a) leadership aspirations, b) educational aspirations, and c) achievement aspirations. The perceived barriers and supports of female leaders also highlighted the present-day gender gap and evidence of the existence of the glass ceiling. Women leaders also found similar barriers and supports related to self-talk, motivation, organizational leadership and support, and organizational structure and support systems.
Two mixed-methods concurrent studies were conducted in the summer of 2018. The achievement theory of aspirational behavior and motivational balance was presented to provide insight into middle managers’ aspirational behavior and their motivation to seek balance to increase their interest in career advancement.
Using the Career Aspiration Scale-Revised, the participants in higher education (n = 169) showed aspirational interest in leadership, education, and achievement, yet, experienced barriers when pursuing advancement in their careers. The participants in industry (n = 51) also showed aspirational interest in leadership, education, and achievement and experienced barriers when pursuing advancement in their careers. However, educational aspirations in industry were less of an aspirational priority to participants than they were to those in higher education.
The participants of this study included females who identified as middle managers and worked in higher education or industry. Purposeful sampling was used to gain insight into this population. The researchers used the initial criteria of participants who identified as female and worked as a middle manager for at least one year in higher education or any industry outside of higher education. Middle managers with at least one year of experience were targeted to provide the participants with enough experience to understand their management role within their respective organization as well as to provide insight into their own experiences. The researchers extended an invitation through professional associations, networks, and social media. Participants also forwarded the invitation to their colleagues, networks, and friends to participate. A descriptive analysis of the sample is shown in Table 1 below.
Our study contributes to the literature on gender gaps in advanced or top leadership positions in the workplace, motivation or aspiration in the workplace, and barriers and supports to advanced leadership. Most of the students who enroll and graduate from college are females, yet the majority of those in advanced or top leadership positions in the workplace are overwhelmingly male. It is important to understand why females are not advancing to positions of influence. Diverse leadership contributes to driving the economy, research, education, and the nonprofit sector. Gender equity at the top provides a balanced perspective and foundation when creating processes, policies, and laws that will affect generations to come.
The expectancy-value model, which shows that people make decisions based on their values and their expectations,3 provided a framework for the study. Finding what people value the most can be used to drive performance. In 1959, Herzberg developed the two-factor theory of motivation, or motivation-hygiene theory, by studying people’s attitudes toward their jobs. Herzberg’s research indicates that workers must have both motivators met to be satisfied with their jobs. Likewise, Maslow developed the hierarchy of needs theory in 1954, which impacts employee motivation. By identifying five layers of requirements, Maslow believed lower-level needs must be satisfied first before advancing to the next level.
By intertwining Herzberg’s two-factor theory of motivation and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, we developed the achievement theory of aspirational behavior and motivational balance. To enhance work performance, the employee must be engaged and feel motivated. To do this, the employee must have basic self-directed needs met. Achievement is the internalized thought process that inspires human behavior to act, fueling the body’s motivational need to seek balance. (See Figure 1, which summarizes the components of the achievement theory of aspirational behavior and motivational balance.)
Barriers and Supports to Career Advancement
Women leaders who are interested in advancement seek to grow in both leadership and achievement at the same rate and level of interest. Educational attainment differs based on the industry one is in. In higher education, an advanced or terminal degree is needed for senior leadership positions. One study participant coming from industry to higher education shared her frustration, noting that “higher education is into the Ph.D.” and that a Ph.D. or an Ed.D. is required for a leadership role without regard for life experience. If a terminal degree is not obtained, this can be seen as a barrier to senior-level leadership positions.
Regardless of the industry, women leaders are calling on organizations to close the gender gap and strive for more equitable leadership in the workplace. The identified barriers experienced by women leaders in the studies support the current literature on the challenges and obstacles that limit access to advanced opportunities. To assist in this call to action, the following themes are presented as both barriers and supports experienced by women leaders across the country both in industry and higher education: 1) the glass ceiling, 2) internal aspects/self-talk, 3) motivators for leaders, 4) organizational leadership support/organizational structure, and 5) office politics/support systems.
The Glass Ceiling
The glass ceiling is the invisible or unacknowledged barrier in the workplace prohibiting growth or advancement. Participants in the study consistently described their experience when their gender, race, age, and/or culture prevented advancement. Ageism is described as the discrimination women experience based on age or appearance. Sexism is described as discrimination based on sex and perception of gender.
Many participants described experiencing sexism, racism, and ageism. In noting that “age plays a huge factor,” one participant reported that, in some situations, “I may be the youngest person, and so I am being questioned—‘Do you have experience and the background necessary to lead a team?’”
Another participant cited gender and race as barriers, noting that “being an African-American woman, I have to think about things differently. How I articulate. How I act. When I walk into the room, what people are thinking about me, what they are saying versus what I am capable of doing.”
Finally, another participant shared the issues she has faced with sexism, stating, “I was told pretty much as soon as I got to my university that to move up, [I would] have to move out. I think that is interesting because I think a lot of women on our campus are given that message, but I’ve seen men not get that same comment, and I’ve seen men be able to move up more easily than women at the same institution.”
Our study found that men and women process risk differently, which can create a barrier to advancement and thus support the glass ceiling. Risk assessment differences between men and women are especially pronounced in terms of awareness, diligence, and decisiveness. Women leaders assess risk naturally as a way to examine their surroundings, their next steps, and the impact on their life and the lives of their family or loved ones. In making decisions about advancement, organizations and supervisors need to be aware of and respect those differences and recognize that women need to be afforded the time to conduct their risk assessments.
Participants reported the internal struggles or attitudes that guided their career paths. Often they referred to “work-life balance” as a barrier to advancement. As women are more apt to be caretakers of children and parents, this was especially true for working mothers. The additional time needed to dedicate to advanced career positions would invade on the additional personal responsibilities and commitments outside of the work. Francis, a supervising psychiatric social worker, described it this way:
When I’m looking at my barriers, I would say my biggest barrier was, in the beginning, my own lack of self-confidence to be able to lead. I really didn’t feel like I had what it took to be a leader—only because of these certain stereotypes that we had or biases that were held in the different organizations I worked with....I finally found that confidence through different trainings and conferences I attended that really empowered me to have a voice in my work.
The participants also were forthcoming about struggling with “self-doubt” and “lack of confidence.” Participants also noted that is was necessary to self-advocate for career advancement; they had to persistently put their names “out there” and make it known to supervisors and other higher-ups that advancement was a career goal.
Motivators for Leaders
The motivators for leaders theme refers to the motivators of women leaders in the workplace and what motivates them to keep leading others. Many participants cited a supportive mentor and professional development opportunities that allowed them to grow and develop. In particular, supervisors who provided support, advocacy, and encouragement helped open paths to advancement by recommending these women for committees, encouraging their participation at conferences, and introducing them to people of influence. A good supervisor also provides feedback for growth and development, which can be motivating. A vice president of marketing explained:
My first boss, who I worked with for 10 years...always knew how to put the right new opportunity in front of me that kept me challenged....I stayed [in my first job out of college] for 12 years because he had that ability to put the right new opportunities in front of me that he knew [matched my skills]....[N]ow I’m in another situation where I’m very fortunate to have a CEO who is very supportive.
Managers can also directly halt the promotion of employees by not providing opportunities for growth and development. A middle manager from California stated, “Occasionally, I have encountered a supervisor who undermines my efforts to improve myself and the working environment for employees that I was involved with.”
Likewise, an inconsistency in structure can act as a barrier as shared by Amy, a senior manager:
[O]ur company has been struggling...for the past five or six years and [there has] been a lot of turnover over the past three or four years. I’ve had five or six bosses, and it’s really hard to keep proving yourself to the next person about what you’re worth and what you can do. I think [that is] probably the biggest barrier...I’ve had some [managers] that are more supportive than others and some that have not been great managers at all.
Organizational Leadership Support/Organizational Structure & Office Politics/Support Systems
The organizational leadership support/organizational structure and office politics/support systems themes refer to the structural and office political issues related to the work environment.
The behaviors and attitudes of the organizational structure can aid or detour advancement. Participants reported being unable to move up due to the size of the organization, but, due to outside work commitments, they cannot change organizations. For example, a middle manager from California reported that she was “working in a family-owned business with limited growth opportunity due to the current management structure.”
The size of the company may not be the only barrier. Beth, a bank branch manager, reported:
[There is a] lack of positions...available. There isn’t a lot of turnover here. If someone is in a management position, they tend to be in that position for a long time. And then we got to a point where...it kind of came to a standstill, where the assistant managers didn’t want to promote any further. They...bottlenecked things for a while, so that hindered me a little bit. I had to wait for someone to retire or leave the organization....
Other participants shared the impact on motivation, engagement, and support when universities and colleges position promotional pathways for women to lead in the workplace. Kaylani stated:
So I think it is a strong obligation of organizations always to be grooming leaders. And leaders don’t have to have the title. A leader can be an influencer, someone that knows how to influence people in the department, that helps that leader in the department to get the things done.
For many women, simply changing companies to pursue advancement is not a viable option. A middle manager who works in primary education shared:
My current organization, a small school district, has limited options for advancement in my field. I am a director of special education, and the only other position for advancement is the superintendency. To advance specifically in the field of special education, I would need to move outside my current organization.
Recommendations for Employers, Universities, and Organizations
In 2011, Elizabeth Allan, writing about women’s status in higher education, posited that dismantling perception, attitudes, and assumptions of women in leadership roles starts with top-level leadership, is embedded in organizational values, and results in the closure of the gender gaps currently in existence.4
Below are five recommendations for employers, universities, and organizations, as well as top-level management, to consider to provide equitable pathways and opportunities for women leaders.
1. Establish a chief diversity officer
- Develop gender-neutral policies inclusive of dress code and gender-neutral expectations.
- Consider the increased workloads placed upon women knowing most are the primary caretaker of at least one other person, and offer family-friendly policies to bring aspects of the home to work.
2. Support non-work commitments/encourage work-life balance.
- According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 48 percent of two-parent families, both parents work full time. However, men spent more hours than women each day with leisure time, especially in households with minor children.
- Women need to be encouraged to take time to relax, unwind, and find a balance to be more motivated in their leadership role.
- Offer benefits relevant to work-life balance, e.g., on-site childcare, children’s infirmary, emergency childcare services, telecommuting, and pet insurance.
3. Offer a flexible work schedule
- Focus on work performance, rather than seat time with traditional 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. hours to allow women leaders to have the option to take children to school, get aging parents to doctor appointments, or even attend to household responsibilities.
- Use modern technology to connect women leaders with work on the go, e.g., e-mail, phone, and video conferencing.
4. Network and Mentor
- Encourage women to engage in leadership development early in their careers.
- Encourage mentoring informal/formal programs to support a sense of belonging.
- Encourage women to establish a set of people who will take an active interest in developing their career and support developmental networks.
5. Engage Partners
- The U.S. Department of Labor also reported that more than half of the married parents say mothers take on the responsibility of managing children’s schedules and are more likely to care for sick children.
- Women need to engage partners in the household and childcare.
- Women need to remember one role does not and should not have to be sacrificed to do another.
A Mandate for Gender Equality
With the recent passing of California Senate Bill 826, California has become the first state to mandate female representation on publicly traded companies headquartered in California. California SB 826 mandates at least one woman on the board of directors by the end of 2019, at least two women on boards of five members, and at least three women on boards with six or more members. California SB 826 requires gender equality; however, does this mandate for gender equality provide an opportunity for gender equity? That question is still to be answered.
1 Ginder, S., Kelly-Reid, J., and Mann, F. (2017). Enrollment and employees in postsecondary institutions, fall 2015; and financial statistics and academic libraries, fiscal year 2015: First look (Provisional Data) (NCES 2017-024). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.
2 Grant Thornton (2017). Women in business: New perspectives on risk and reward. Retrieved from www.grantthornton.ae/insights/articles/women-in-business-2017.
3 Further studies about the expectancy model theory include works of (Atkinson, 1964; Eccles, 1987, 2011; Eccles & Wigfield, 2002; Wigfield & Eccles, 2000)
4 Allan, E. (2011). Special issue: Women’s status in higher education: Equity matters. ASHE Higher Education Report, 37(1), 1-163.
Atkinson, J. (1964). An introduction to motivation. Oxford, England: D. Van
California Senate Bill No. 826 https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180SB826
Eccles, J. (1987). Gender roles and women’s achievement-related decision. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 11, 135-172.
Eccles, J., & Wigfield, A. (2002). Motivational beliefs, values, and goals. Annual Reviews Psychology, 53, 109-32. Retrieved from http://outreach.mines.edu/cont_ed/Eng-Edu/eccles.pdf
Herzberg, F. (1959). The motivation to work (2nd ed.). New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.
Kim, Y., & Cook, B. (2012). Diversity at the top: The American college president 2012. On Campus With Women, 41(1). Retrieved from
Ginder, S., Kelly-Reid, J., and Mann, F. (2017). Enrollment and employees in postsecondary institutions, fall 2015; and financial statistics and academic libraries, fiscal year 2015: First look (Provisional Data) (NCES 2017-024).
U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.
Giuffrida, T. A. (2019). Leadership Aspirations of Female Middle Managers in Industry and Their Barriers to Advancement (Doctoral dissertation, California State University, Fresno).
Grant Thornton (2017). Women in business: New perspectives on risk and reward. Retrieved from www.grantthornton.ae/insights/articles/women-in-business-2017.
Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York, NY: Harpers.
Rodriguez, N. (2019). Leadership Aspirations of Female Middle Managers in Higher Education and Their Barriers to Advancement (Doctoral dissertation, California State University, Fresno).
United States Department of Labor (2018). Married parents’ use of time, 2003-06. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/famee.pdf
Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. (2000). Expectancy-value theory of achievement motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 68-81. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1006/ceps.1999.1015