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Spring 2011

Volume 40
Number 1

Gender and Higher Education Leadership


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From Where I Sit

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Mary Churchill
Mary Churchill

Beyond the “Company Man” Model: Rethinking Academic Administration for Work–Life Balance
By Mary Churchill, special assistant to the vice president of institutional advancement at Queens College, City University of New York

When my son was in preschool and I was rising through the ranks of academic administration, I occasionally worried that I would break out into “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round” during high-stakes meetings with provosts and vice presidents. Publicly, my colleagues and I might have agreed about the need for work–life balance. But behind the scenes, I was engaged in a constant scramble that hardly resembled balance at all.

I was awarded my PhD in 2004, and my son was born less than a year later. While on maternity leave from a full-time teaching and administrative position, I was recruited to become an assistant dean. At the time, I had worked in administration for over fifteen years. When I chose to pursue that course over searching for a tenure-track faculty position, I was choosing the known over the unknown, stability over instability. Little did I know where the road would lead.

Parallel Paths

I became a full-time administrator in part because of my eye-witness accounts of the intersection of academia and parenthood. I had seen that for women, being pregnant during the job talk meant not receiving a tenure-track offer, and having children while on the tenure track often led to tenure denial. At present, not one of my tenure-track female colleagues has a child, and while I would like to think that my observations are exceptional, research confirms that “only one in three women who takes a fast-track university [faculty] job before having a child ever becomes a mother” (Mason and Goulden 2004).

I thought I had avoided the heart-wrenching decisions that lie behind these figures when I chose the administrative path. But when my dean sent me to a leadership training program for women, I heard an ominous message. During the program, a young attendee asked a panelist of presidents and former presidents how they had managed work–life balance with children. Two of the three women had decided not to have children, and the third did not enter administration until her children were in their twenties. All three women thought that they and their families had made huge personal sacrifices to support their careers.

Their accounts were telling. Although the overall percentage of female presidents with children (68 percent) is much higher than represented on the panel, it is also much lower than the share of male presidents who are parents (91 percent) (American Council on Education 2007, 16). Similarly, among chief academic officers, 69 percent of women (compared with 88 percent of men) have children, and only 15 percent of women (compared with 26 percent of men) have children under eighteen (Eckel, Cook, and King 2009, 28). I thought to myself, “Well, I already have a child, and I’m in a senior leadership position. What do I do now?”

Success and Sacrifice

I was lucky to have a dean who, with a young son of his own, was open to flex time, telecommuting, and working around people's personal lives. But my dean couldn't control for the attitudes of my fellow team members, many of whom acted like “company men”—married to the job, willing to accept missing their partners and children as part of life. I discovered that being accepted by my peers was all about logging face time. Staying after hours was much more important than coming in early—and as parents of young children know, staying late means giving up the daily window of quality time before children go to bed. But leaving the office on time meant missing the sidebar conversations that happen after hours, when more senior administrators wander the halls chatting casually and arranging impromptu dinner meetings. This is the golf course of university administration, where all the deals are negotiated.

I have been invited to many of these impromptu dinners, almost invariably at 4 p.m. I have engaged in on-the-spot cost–benefit analysis: Is this opportunity more important than spending time with my husband and son? I have hurriedly texted my husband, "Can you do pick up today? I have a dinner meeting." When the dinners end up being just dinners, I am filled with regret and even some resentment, which doesn’t help me build the relationships that are the point of such events.

Sacrificing Success

Ironically, one of the biggest personal challenges I have encountered in administration stems from my successes. In the first four years of my son’s life, I received five promotions. I was being fast-tracked for a dean position—requiring international travel (which my family understood), impromptu dinner meetings (which they tolerated), and multiple weeknight and weekend events (which tested their patience). My husband and son understandably found it difficult to accommodate these demands on my time.

When my dean offered what would have been my sixth promotion in four years, I told him that I couldn’t accept it. I needed a break. My son was about to enter kindergarten, and my family needed me to be there for them. I left my full-time position and took a part-time job at another institution.

In making this decision, I thought of all the men with whom I worked—and they were mostly men, although that is changing nationwide, with women now holding 45 percent of senior administrative positions (King and Gomez 2008, 4). Many of those men had wives who were full-time stay-at-home mothers and wives, while they themselves rarely saw their children. They weren't happy about it, but they accepted it as the way things are.

Leadership for Innovation

Current configurations of leadership in the academy are problematic to say the least. They continue to be premised on the idea of leaders as individual superheroes rather than as members of teams. This is one area that desperately needs transformation if colleges and universities want to continue to drive creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

Cultural change needs to happen from the bottom up and from the top down. It needs to be modeled by senior leadership and embraced by secretaries and receptionists. Valuing the quality of work rather than insisting that the desk lamp be on at all hours is the first step. The corporate sector has understood this for some time and has adapted to keep the most talented and innovative people.

The next generation of leaders is not interested in business as usual. We work best in collaborative teams. We cherish time with families and friends. Meeting our need for work–life balance is not just a matter of making us happy: reports from the corporate sector show that having healthy work–life integration leads to greater creativity and innovation (Miller 2010). Moreover, employees who work collaboratively are more likely to make decisions that advance their institutions rather than advancing their own careers. What is good for employees is good for higher education as well.

Slowing the Clock

My son will enter first grade in the fall, and I am once again considering a full-time position in administration. Recently, I had a fantastic conversation with a local college president who is, not coincidentally, a woman. I shared with her my concerns about reentering academic administration. She understood completely and nodded her head. Yes, she was out every night of the week and every weekend. But her son was almost thirty, so it was the right time in her life. She told me what every mother and some fathers tell me, sometimes with tears of regret in their eyes: this time with your child only comes once in your life, and it goes by so fast. She also offered wise advice that others hadn't: find a way to slow down the promotion cycle.

I have a six-year-old son who still enjoys having dinner with his mom and going to the playground with her on the weekends. I know he’ll outgrow this soon, and then I can think about taking a position as dean. I just hope that slowing down the promotion cycle until he’s ready to give up his face time with me doesn’t close my window of opportunity.

Editor’s note: Mary Churchill is a founding editor and regular contributor to the University of Venus, available online at She also blogs regularly at Old School, New School, sponsored by the Chronicle of Higher Education at


American Council on Education. 2007. The American College President: 2007 Edition. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

Eckel, Peter D., Bryan J. Cook, and Jacqueline E. King. 2009. The CAO Census: A National Profile of Chief Academic Officers. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

King, Jacqueline E., and Gigi G. Gomez. 2008. On the Pathway to the Presidency: Characteristics of Higher Education’s Senior Leadership. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

Mason, Mary Ann, and Marc Goulden. 2004. “Do Babies Matter (Part II)?Closing the Baby Gap.” Academe 90 (6).

Miller, Stephen. 2010. “Study Links Wellness and Work/Life Programs to Creativity.” Society for Human Resource Management Online, March 1.

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