Date of Award

December 2019

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Higher Education


Catherine M. Engstrom

Subject Categories



This dissertation centered the experiences of women academic leaders – their backgrounds, educational experiences and leadership styles – to illuminate the intersection of identity and leadership. Using narrative inquiry as a methodological framework (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Creswell, 2013), the researcher conducted a qualitative study by interviewing seventeen women presidents and chief academic officers in a semi-structured format. In exploring and analyzing the stories of women leaders, the researcher avoided unidimensional characterizations and binary comparisons with male leaders. To incorporate the interlocking components of identity, the researcher considered the impact of race, class, gender, and first-generation status, as well as historical and institutional contexts, as a backdrop for those experiences.

The narratives of these women leaders revealed their overlapping identities – who they are as human beings, how they define themselves, and what influences have shaped their lives and careers. The researcher worked within the framework of feminist theory to center the women leaders’ experiences, and especially relied on West and Zimmerman’s (1987) theoretical work on “doing gender.” How the leaders not only perceived, but also performed, their gender became a critical component of the dissertation analysis. In addition, the work of Black feminist theorist Collins (1986) proved foundational, since it highlighted the particular experiences and perspectives of “outsiders within” who have had historically limited access to organizations and communities, and therefore enjoy a special understanding of the challenges and obstacles that limit their full participation. The researcher also incorporated Crenshaw’s (2000) theory of intersectionality, which exposed the complexity and interlocking nature of racism and sexism.

In analyzing the provosts’ and presidents’ “talk” and how they made meaning of their experiences, the researcher identified the systemic concerns in the academy that continue to impact women's lives and careers and the ways in which sexist practices are reproduced. While the women leaders were highly reflective about their own individual experiences, they were not always able to name how they “did gender.” The participants portrayed the sexism as an obstacle that needed to be navigated and overcome on an individual basis. As women who achieved professional success but struggled to acknowledge the larger forces at play, they engaged in a type of “discursive disjunction” (Chase, 1995). The dissertation concludes by outlining future implications and sets forth recommendations that focus on leadership advocacy, sustained development opportunities, intentional mentoring, and attentiveness to search processes in order to effect structural changes in higher education.


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