What Brings Career Satisfaction to Women Administrators?

“Sometimes satisfaction trickles down.”

Fewer than half of all Americans are satisfied with their jobs, according to a representative sample of 5,000 households surveyed in early 2007 for The Conference Board, a nonprofit business membership and research organization.

Not surprisingly, youngest workers are the most dissatisfied—as are those earning $15,000 or less each year. But workers ages 45-54 expressed the second lowest level of satisfaction; fewer than 45% reported being happy in their current job. How do the results of that study play out in academe, especially among female administrators?

At the University of Nebraska’s conference on Women in Educational Leadership held in Lincoln in October, Dr. Sandra Seay, assistant professor of educational leadership at East Carolina University, reported results of her study of both first-generation and “continuing generation” women administrators. What factors affect their career satisfaction and development?

The study

Seay designed a 62-item online survey based on those by members of Women Administrators in North Carolina Higher Education—a branch of the American Council on Education—done in 1993, 1994 and 1997. The surveys sought both demographic information and respondents’ views on work climate and work development.

She used some questions from the original surveys and added others to determine what first-generation women administrators—those who were first in their family to earn bachelor’s degrees—thought of their experiences.

Women still remain the primary caretakers: of children, the home and extended family, including both financial support and health-related support. They spend only a little time taking care of themselves.

Seay’s interest in this topic is more than academic. She has a husband with a chronic illness and as a first-generation older woman, she wondered if she gets overlooked at her school for the younger women without the responsibilities. A lot of the literature about women graduate students or faculty revealed that most didn’t have health concerns or caring for others as part of their life experiences. Yet these “duties” impact the way women administrators can do their jobs.

Men use locker rooms and golf courses as informal meeting places to make the connections that will further their careers. But additional responsibilities can prevent women administrators from making similar connections at on campus events. At some schools people feel concerned about how honest they can be about their obligations without jeopardizing their careers.

The online survey was sent to 862 women employed at both public and private two- and four-year schools in North Carolina during spring 2005. Seay had searched the schools’ Web sites to identify women who weren’t faculty or sup-port staff. Of the 349 who responded, seven were either chancellors or presidents; 50 were either provosts or vice presidents/chancellors and 94 were deans, or associate or assistant deans. She had a response rate of 40.4%, and an age range from 26 to 68.

The overwhelming majority (247) were married. Caucasians were also in the majority at 285. Of the 349, 134 were first-generation. Other demographic information: 22.9% had been employed in their current position for seven or more years while 39% had held the same position for four to six years. Only 19% had held their current positions for one year or less.

Positive work climate?

Positive work climate was defined as having salary satisfaction, a good relationship with their supervisor and respect. Events and practices that negatively impacted respondents’ career development included tenure policies, family and children concerns that hampered career goals and supervisors that gave more support to male colleagues.

Most respondents did not financially support more than one child, parent or other relative. And most did not expe-rience interrupted career plans because of a personal illness or that of an immediate family member or relative.

On the whole, the women were satisfied with their salaries. They had opportunities for personal advancement and those advancement opportunities were equal for both female and male administrators. Interestingly, for first generation administrators, salary satisfaction was nearly split (70 to 61) between satisfied and dissatisfied.

Only first-generation women working in the community college system felt that sexism was an obstacle to their career. Continuing generation women working at the University of North Carolina System were evenly divided on the question of whether sexism negatively impacted their career development.

When asked if concerns for family and children had hampered their career achievements, respondents said they had not. But about half of the first-generation respondents were concerned about access to and participation in the informal networks that are so important.

 Why are they happy?

 Why are women administrators apparently happy in the state of North Carolina? Seay admitted being surprised at the results. “The data is the data,” she said.

Seay posits that Molly Broad’s influence as the president of the UNC System from 1997 to 2006 may have played a large role in the women’s satisfaction. “Sometimes satisfaction trickles down,” she said.

Other possibilities: Most of the women pioneers were childless. Today younger faculty members are having children, and many husbands now choose lower-pressure jobs so they can take on more responsibilities of home and children. For African American women administrators, it’s aunts and mothers who are helping out with childcare.

Perhaps after experiencing the “Mom” role, the women realize it’s a real challenge to move up and be a mother at the same time, so they have settled into a place where they’re satisfied, at least for now. “Where I am at the moment is where I’ve chosen to position myself,” explained Seay. That location may change as the children grow up and/or care-taking responsibilities lessen.

One important point that was not studied was the participants’ definition of success and/or satisfaction. Women generally have their own definitions, which may differ depending upon where they are in their lives.

Many were over 50. Having reached their career goals, some were planning to retire as administrators and return to teaching. Those under 50 were the most satisfied with the career opportunities available to them.

Trying to define what makes women happy in their careers is a start to defining a successful life.

Contact Seay at
or 252.328.5313

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