Women at the top: What women university and college presidents say about effective leadership

Mimi Wolverton, Beverly L Bower and Adrienne E Hyle Stylus Publishing, Sterling, VA, 2008, 152pp., $21.00, ISBN: 1579222560

Few examples or role models exist for women seeking leadership positions in higher education. As noted by the authors, ‘Eighty-six percent of presidents in 2006 were male, with the majority of women presidents heading small, private, four-year universities or community colleges’ (p. xii). Despite their small numbers and lack of visibility, women are enjoying success in university leadership. Reminiscent of Gardner's (1995) Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, Wolverton, Bower and Hyle present the stories of nine female college and university presidents in Women at the Top: What Women University and College Presidents Say About Effective Leadership. In a world that is still dominated by male leadership in many industries including higher education, Women at the Top illuminates the success of female heads of colleges and raises the question ‘Why is the college and university presidency still so consistently held by men?’

Women at the Top is the first in the ‘Pathways to Leadership’ series profiling successful women at the high point of their professional careers. It provides a collection of biographical sketches about the experiences of women in college and university presidencies in a range of institutions and in different regions of the United States. Women at the Top tells the story from each President's perspective about the professional path that she took to obtain her role and the events and personal style that contributed to her success.

In preparation for this book and other publications, the authors engaged in a qualitative study of gender and effective leadership. They approached the study from the perspective that both men and women engage in similar behaviors and approaches that constitute effective leadership, a position supported in a meta-analysis of leadership and management literature conducted by Vecchio (2002). They used case study design to compare participants and identify common themes and trends. Data for the study was obtained via face-to-face, semi-structured interviews with the participants and supplemented with materials from their institutions and other widely available material on the university's website or in newspapers. The researchers selected participants based on their reputation and experience. Additionally, the participants were diverse in their own experiences, institutional type and region. It should be noted that the nature of this book did not allow the researchers to draw conclusions about the difference or similarity of leadership styles employed by men and women. Other publications based on this research will likely address this hypothesis.

The primary strength of Women at the Top is the variety of presidents interviewed. The profiles include women who have had successful presidencies, unsuccessful presidencies, are presidents of state, proprietary, tribal and community colleges, and come from a variety of disciplinary, family and ethnic backgrounds. It is instructive that despite their own and organizational differences, many of the women report the use of similar practices and techniques in their leadership and similar struggles. A number of those interviewed note the importance of learning the organizational culture of their new institution and one woman describes the challenges that she faced as a result of not taking the time to learn about important institutional scripts. Several of the women reference the challenges associated with their transition from faculty member to department head or dean and eventually to the presidency. Others note the importance of scanning the institution's external environment and the larger world of higher education to keep abreast of new developments in education and the world.

An additional strength of this text is the authors’ refusal to overlook the struggles encountered by women leaders including not only institutional boundaries such as sexism and racism but also the challenges for their families. Most of the women report difficulty maintaining work-life balance, long hours and thinking about the presidency even when they are away from their college. A number of the women also discuss their own personal struggles and how those have impacted or been related to their presidencies.

The book is organized into 12 chapters including an introduction, one chapter for each of the nine women profiled, a conclusion and a discussion of the research methodology. Each woman's story is told through a combination of first and third person so as to allow each president's story to be told in her own voice. Although this blend of perspectives had the potential to be confusing, it is well organized, clearly written and easily accessible.

However, the accessibility of the text may also be what leaves the reader wanting. Those who are interested in more than a superficial way in the mechanics of female leadership, or the differences between male and female leadership, may be interested in seeking out other reports prepared from the data collected in this study. As it is, the book could have been strengthened substantially by integrating the women's stories with leadership and organizational theory and other scholarly research. Additionally, although the book is likely to provide inspiration for an aspiring leader, it is unlikely that it will provide her with new and concrete takeaways to benefit her growth and development.

Women at the Top is an enjoyable read for women seeking leadership roles in any discipline, but particularly those in higher education. In addition to being an engaging and personal account of the struggles and successes of female leaders, the biographies were developed using sound research methodology. I would recommend this book without reservation to my female colleagues who aspire to leadership roles in institutions of higher learning. Additionally, Women at the Top would be informative to and provide male readers with insight into the female leaders that they will encounter more frequently throughout their careers.


  1. Gardner, H. (1995) Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership. New York: Basic Books.

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  2. Vecchio, R.P. (2002) Leader and gender advantage. The Leadership Quarterly 13: 643–671.

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  3. Wolverton, M., Bower, B.L. and Hyle, A.E. (2009) Women at the Top: What Women College and University Presidents Say about Effective Leadership. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

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Kirschmann, S. Women at the top: What women university and college presidents say about effective leadership. Int J Educ Adv 9, 188–190 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1057/ijea.2009.35

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