Put Away the Cape and Tiara: Superwoman Doesn’t Live Here

has made me more
empathetic to students
and parents.

Dr. Susan Bissett GardnerDr. Susan Bissett Gardner

If I only had a cape and a tiara, I could save the world.” Which of us wouldn’t want a special outfit that gave us magical powers?

But that outfit exists only in our minds. The “save the world” complex not only impedes our progress but actually drags us down, making us less than we can be. We must learn to refashion success and reframe what it is, said Dr. Susan Bissett Gardner. Gardner is VP of student services at Kanawha Valley Community and Technical College in West Virginia. She spoke about how the third shift stifles women at the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) conference held in Phoenix in March 2012.

Her presentation grew out of work for her dissertation. A divorced mother of two girls, who recently remarried, Gardner wondered how her personal and professional experiences stacked up against those of other female administrators.

Her research on the lives, perceptions and experiences of other women in student affairs sought to get to the lived experiences of these women. But she had another intention. Gardner wanted to apply the lessons learned to her life.

Unanswered questions

The dissertation was influenced by two factors: her thesis and her personal experience. Her master’s thesis in Gender and Communication was both quantitative and qualitative. Her personal experience as both a student affairs professional and as a mother revealed unanswered questions.

Gardner worked in higher education from 1997 to 2004, taking a hiatus from 2004 to 2010. She enjoyed her first position until she had her first child, when she discovered that her campus was unfriendly to mothers. Conferences frequently covered the differences in women’s communication styles, but never about how to balance children.

Much has been written about women’s first and second shifts. But there’s a third shift, mostly in our minds, that occasionally leeches into the first and second shifts.

“On the inside we beat ourselves up though we look great on the outside,” she said. The third shift is where Gardner chose to focus her research attention.

That there was little focus on the topic in student affairs publications supported her decision. In 2004 Gardner had also participated in NASPA’s Alice Manicur Symposium for women aspiring to become senior student affairs officers, but she stopped after deciding that she wasn’t ready to become a dean. The decision was predicated on having a two-year-old child and later a miscarriage.

From 2004 to 2010, Gardner was a higher education consultant; she had a second child and then a miscarriage in 2006. She returned to the academy as dean of student services in 2010 and was promoted to VP in 2011.

Women as storytellers

Telling stories is the way women make sense of the world. These narratives help get to “subjective meaning” and act as “threads” holding the pieces of our lives together.

Gardner interviewed 11 mid-level student affairs administrators, using the responses of six of them in her dissertation. She asked about their perceptions on balancing their personal and professional roles and the meaning they ascribe to their personal and professional experiences.

She wanted to know their career progression and the choices or sacrifices they made to accommodate their responsibilities. Participants were also asked to give advice to newly minted professionals and what kinds of campus support structures they thought would improve things.

Three separate phone interviews covered life histories, experiences and how participants made sense of their current roles in administration.

All participants were mid-level managers at four-year schools (four at privates, two at publics) who weren’t reporting to a campus president. All had attended the Alice Manicur Symposium in either 2004 or 2006. They averaged 14 years of experience in student affairs and had an average of two children between ages 1 and 18. All but one held a terminal degree.

Four themes

Gardner’s research uncovered four themes.

Coping strategies. Participants listed time management, domestic responsibilities and childcare/transportation as the main ways they were able to cope with multiple demands. One woman reported keeping a color-coded master calendar to record individual family members’ responsibilities.

Career choices/professional development. In this category, primary points were pursuit of a higher position, the timing and pursuit of the terminal degree and attendance at professional conferences and meetings. They knew that they needed a terminal degree to move up the career ladder. But timing the degree with children and campus responsibilities was difficult. They were also concerned about not being able to participate at conferences due to the demands of their multiple roles.

Campus culture/climate. Was theirs a family-friendly versus a non-family-friendly work environment? Did the women have supportive supervisors? What was the role of mentors in professional success? Did the participants have access to on-campus childcare? Four of the six reported having access to childcare at work. Each had a mentor, the person they called “with OMG questions.”

Role of the partner. The more involved the partner, the easier it was for participants to balance their roles. Important issues were who took responsibility for domestic work at home, childcare, transportation and work schedule.

Participants in Gardner’s study admitted that there is no such thing as “balance.” One dean of students said, “Real balance is living life in both roles, no regrets. It’s the sense of being in the right place at the right time. That’s the groove; and having the energy to be fully present. …”

Another pointed out that we have to understand that we will die with our inbox full. The sooner we realize that, the easier our life will be. So go home and have a life.

Making choices

Two sets of factors affected their professional success. The negative ones were lack of mobility, professional development and education. Positive factors included mentors, education and credibility.

Trying to balance motherhood and a career shut some doors. Many participants were geographically landlocked. They didn’t have the freedom to move frequently, which negatively affected their promotability, so they settled for where they were and at whatever level they were. They tried to make their jobs a rewarding experience for themselves.

Because mentors played an important role in encouraging the women to earn advanced degrees if they sought promotion, one woman quipped that instead of Match.com perhaps we need Mentor.com.

The best mentors didn’t say just: “You should.” Instead they said, “You should. I think you can. Let’s make a plan.”

Some found benefits in being a mother and a professional. One equated being a mother with having more compassion for others. “Motherhood has made me more empathetic to students and parents,” she said. “I think parents and students see me as more credible.”

Defining success

Our expectations influence our happiness and how we view success. Gardner’s study showed that some “reframing” needs to occur when defining success. “We need to stop telling women that we’re only a success in student affairs at the vice president level,” she said. “We need to reframe what success is to mean that we do a good job.”

To paraphrase Parker Palmer, we need to “know who we are and who we are not,” understanding ourself and our priorities. Women must know their limitations and understand what comprises their support system. Particularly for women with children, they must recognize what their personal lives will demand from them.

Acknowledge that your partner will not change and suddenly embrace housekeeping chores. Realize you’re not Martha Stewart. Get as much help with chores, daycare and housecleaning as you can afford. We need to free ourselves from the myth of Superwoman who can do it all because most of us can’t.

Reframing success

Gardner’s study showed that not everyone wants to be a VP and that’s okay, nor does everyone want or need a terminal degree.

Linear progression is not always possible or desirable. Geographical relocation is not an option for everyone, especially women in rural states. Stopping work to pursue other interests, have a baby or raise a child shouldn’t be punished.

The problem needs to be addressed on a national level, not just one campus or one woman at a time. We need people who get this in roles where they can make a difference.

“There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women,” said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. We need to help the women in our own offices to balance their lives and spread the word to other departments.

Reach Susan Gardner at:

Santovec, Mary Lou. (2012, October). Put Away the Cape and Tiara: Superwoman Doesn’t Live Here. Women in Higher Education, 21(10), 30-31. 

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