Nan-Chi Tiao

Date Approved


Degree Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Education (EdD)

Department or School

Leadership and Counseling

Committee Member

Martha W. Tack, PhD

Committee Member

Helen Ditzhazy, PhD

Committee Member

April Flanagan, EdD


The purpose of this study was to obtain a deeper understanding of what it takes for women to succeed as cabinet-level higher education administrators. The findings not only offer a wealth of strategies for career success and for overcoming professional and personal challenges, but also shed new light on critical factors that affect women’ experiences at work.

This qualitative, phenomenological study was based primarily on confidential interviews with nine senior women leaders. Two informants are presidents, six are vice presidents, and one serves as a senior executive officer of their universities. Before assuming their current posts, they worked in a variety of leadership capacities ranging from department head to president at various institutions. All interviews were transcribed verbatim, analyzed, and compared for salient themes. To ensure the credibility of this research endeavor, triangulation was used by incorporating all informants and an independent outside auditor to validate the accuracy, objectivity, and plausibility of the results drawn from this study.

Six major themes emerged from this research: effective leadership strategies: earning your place at the table; tests and trials; maintaining focus and political savvy; numbers matter: the rules change; gender as a two-edged sword; and competing as a woman: prepared and ready. The results revealed that to succeed as top-level executives, women must constantly overachieve, maintain good relationships with others, hold onto personal and institutional values to do the right things, expand themselves constantly, and utilize strong mentors’ assistance as well as sponsorship. When faced with implicit and explicit challenges such as unequal treatment, gender bias, resistance, political joggling, or personal struggles, they rely on private confrontation, emotional intelligence, and tenacity, as well as all possible support and resources to survive and thrive.

The most important finding was the contrast between women leaders’ token experiences versus their experiences as an equal social group in leadership teams. The results confirmed Kanter’s (1993) theory about the impact of the proportion of women on management culture and on individual leaders’ experiences. Obviously, placing more women in powerful leadership positions will foster a more diversified, inclusive management culture and improve executive women leaders’ experiences at work.


Additional committee member: Patrick Melia, PhD