Up, Up and….Out?

Editors Note:  This is the third in a series of guest blog posts about the experiences  and perspectives of women.  Vera Anderson (pseudonym), a professional in higher education administration, discusses the concern about women advancing and/or leaving within her profession.

Up, Up and…Out?

Last week I had lunch with a female colleague in the Division of Student Affairs.  She had suggested we get lunch after overhearing me discussing my frustrations with opportunities for advancement on our campus.  Apparently, what I said with her resonated greatly.  We’re both in entry-level jobs that don’t give us the opportunity to supervise professional staff—an experience we’d like to have within the next few years.  What transpired from our lunch, among other things, was a critical discussion of gender in our division.

 At my institution, the 100+ entry and mid-level student affairs positions are mostly occupied by women, with only a smattering of men among the staff.  However, when you examine the director level, men occupy 80% of the leadership roles.  Furthermore, most directors have been in their position for more than 10 years and don’t appear to be moving on anytime soon.  This results in a lack of women mentors and an inability for women to move into leadership roles in the division.

Although the lack of women mentors on campus is concerning, that can be remedied by finding a mentor in a professional association or through networking.  The lack of access to leadership roles is what truly has me concerned about the future of our division.  As a professional who’s past my 3-5 year “intro period” in the field, I’m ready for a new challenge—and I’m not alone.  My recent lunch date was not the only person who has voiced these concerns to me.  We’re ready for the next step, and would like to stay at our institution, but deep down we know that there really isn’t a chance to move up—only out.  This is especially frustrating when we examine the career path of the male directors in the division—a large portion of them are “homegrown” and were continually promoted without having to leave our institution.

I brought up this topic with my supervisor, who is a wonderful, caring woman.  When it became clear that she agreed with my point of view, I asked her how she lives with it.  Unfortunately, her response was that she’s learned what things she can control and chooses to focus on those.  Career advancement for women in our division is not one of the things she feels she can control.

At what point does an institution address the exodus of its young women leaders?  Of course, we can’t put “term limits” on leadership positions, but can something else be done?  Is my institution a lone wolf, or do other student affairs divisions have a similar pattern?  Do women student affairs professionals have to move out to move up more often than their male counterparts?