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Vol. 34 (2014)

Making Meaning of Barriers and Adversity: Experiences of Women Leaders in Higher Education

  • Amy B. Diehl
June 16, 2017


Extensive research has demonstrated that women aspiring to and serving as leaders face many barriers, which creates a glass ceiling effect for women's advancement into top leadership positions. In higher education, women hold only 26 percent of all college and university presidencies. The objective of this qualitative study was to discover the meaning of adversity for women leaders in higher education. Face-to-face interviews were conducted with 26 women in senior leadership roles in higher education. The research question was "How do women leaders in higher education make meaning of adversity?" Participants reported experiencing wide-ranging types of adversity, including gender-based leadership barriers. While adversity had a generally positive effect on participant identity, it had disparate effects on self-esteem, power, connections to others, and worldviews. The common thread was that adversity can lead to growth and opportunity but such benefits are intertwined with pain and loss.