April 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 2 // Research in Brief // 2RIB6

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Predictors of Women's Success in Achieving Senior-Level Administrative Positions in CSREES

The purpose of the study reported here was to examine the career paths of women directors in the Cooperative State Research Extension Education Service (CSREES) to determine what factors enabled them to rise to the directorship and what factors impeded them along the way. The design employed was a multiple case study, a field study within the Naturalistic Inquiry paradigm. Four major themes that influenced the attainment of executive positions by women in CSREES emerged from the data: organizational factors, building networks and relationships, recognizing opportunities, and gender.

Lucille C. Mayer
Department of Education Leadership and Policy Analysis
University of Missouri
Columbia, Missouri
Internet Address: MayerL@missouri.edu

While progress has been made by women in achieving senior-level administrative positions in the Cooperative State Research Extension Education Service (CSREES), they remain under-represented in the position of state director. During the 85-year history of this national organization, only one woman has reached the position of National Director. The CSREES has been even slower than universities to promote women to senior-level administrative positions (National Center for Educational Statistics, 1996; ECOP, 1997; Maddy, 1992). Although the number of women directors in CSREES has fluctuated (in 1997 6 of 74 directors, or 8%, were women, see Table 1), there is a discrepancy between the number of women in CSREES state-based director positions and the number of women who are qualified. (Qualified women include associate and assistant directors, assistants to the directors, and regional directors.)

Table 1.
Profiles of Cooperative Sate Research Extension Education Service Administrators Nationwide

  Directors Associate
to Director
Total 74 64 92 11 195
Male 68 (92%) 48 (75%) 69 (75%) 9 (82%) 148 (76%)
Female 6 (8%) 16 (25%) 23 (25%) 2 (18%) 47 (24%)
Source: County Agents Directory 1996-97

Until now, no studies have specifically dealt with career progressions of either men or women in CSREES, and none have addressed the attainment of senior-level administrative and state directorship positions by women within the Cooperative Extension System at land-grant universities. As more women pursue these senior-level administrative careers, there arises a need to better understand how an aspiring female professional develops a career as an administrator. The purpose of the study reported here was to identify important factors in achieving state directorships that might help other women reach this level and beyond.

Purpose and Objectives

This study was guided by the following question: What major influences and experiences helped or hindered women in CSREES from becoming directors of state-based Cooperative Extension systems? More specific research questions included the following.

  1. How did the women in this study advance to their present levels?

  2. What were their perceptions of the factors involved in their work histories and progressions of their careers that led to senior-level administrative positions?

  3. What life experiences and particular persons or relationships did they feel were significant or formative in developing their present career choices?

  4. What career-related strategies were employed that led to their present positions?

  5. How did organizational factors related to CSREES affect women in obtaining senior-level administrative positions?

Research Design and Methodology

This study used a multiple case study design through which the researcher generated an intensive, holistic description of women's career progression in CSREES administration. Four women directors of CSREES served as subjects in the study. Data were collected through: in-depth, semi-structured, individual interviews with each subject; the gathering of pertinent documents related to each woman's career progression; and on-site observations. Data were analyzed as materials, and information was collected. Inductive data analysis was employed to identify emergent themes.

Consistent with accepted qualitative research methods (Lincoln & Guba, 1985), trustworthiness of the data was ensured through a variety of means, including in-depth, detailed, rich, thick descriptions based on each woman's personal perspectives and experiences via the use of her own language. This study provided for the triangulation of data through interviews, document analyses, and observation. Peer examination and member checks were used to provide confirmation of the researcher's thematic analysis.

Summary of Findings

Four major themes emerged from the data collected from four women directors through interviews and examination of written materials. As expected, not every respondent fit into every theme. However, many commonalties existed. Because many factors and variables influence and shape women's professional careers in the Cooperative Extension System, eight subthemes emerged that were associated with the four themes.

Organizational Factors

The first theme emerging from the study was organizational factors, and its two subthemes were 1) agricultural background as norm and 2) gender issues associated with male-dominated hiring practices. Even though there are many women in higher education administration, they are concentrated in middle-management positions rather than at senior-levels.

Women interviewed for this study noted they had entered "a primarily male-dominated field" and in most states had to break a long-held tradition of "men only" in top leadership positions. Each woman in the study had to show how agriculture was a part of her background through degrees and/or experiences.

This study found that the traditionally male occupation of agriculture is the traditional background for an Extension director. The non-stated normative expectation of an agriculture background appears to be a barrier for women, because so few women have such a background. The study participants chose careers considered non-traditional and entered "traditionally hierarchical agriculture" positions in Extension that were dominated by men.

Building Networks and Relationships

Building networks and relationships was the second theme arising from this study, with the three subthemes of 1) role models, 2) mentors, and 3) political acumen. All the women in the study built a variety of local and regional networks that supported their rise to higher levels of administration. Networking was important to the women in this study. The women described building strong partnerships with key external constituents in their states. Participants described themselves as having formed strong peer networks of communication and support in their respective states and across the country with others in similar positions prior to becoming senior-level administrators and while in these positions.

Participants defined a role model as someone in greater authority in whom they "saw things that were strong" that they "wanted to emulate" and who also played an important role in their careers. Role models demonstrated valued behavior. One participant stated, "I watched how they handled situations and learned from them." Betz and Fitzgerald (1987) and Douvan (1976) identified the lack of female role models in nontraditional professional and senior-level administrative positions as a significant barrier to women's career development, impeding women from pursing nontraditional careers. Finding few female role models in CSREES, the women in this study had to find role models in other fields or turn to male mentors in CSREES.

This study clearly showed that participants benefited from mentoring relationships. Mentors affirm potential, recognize skills and talents, and encourage professional development. All four women identified at least one person who was critical to her career development and decision-making; they also identified relationships with friends and colleagues as important sources of mentoring. The mentors in this study were both male and female, and affirmed their protégés' potential, encouraged them to take risks, participated in conversations in which there was an open exchange of ideas, listened to them, and helped them define career goals.

Being politically aware and astute was also key to the success of the participating women's careers. When the women interviewed for the state director position, they were familiar with the politics of the system and with the hierarchical nature of Extension. They learned to negotiate within the system, following the rules and procedures of the organization.

Recognizing Opportunities

The third major theme of the study was recognizing opportunities, and the two associated subthemes were 1) academic credentials, along with connections to academic departments, and 2) positioning for career advancement. Kanter (1993), in her research extensively examining the organizational environment for understanding how women function in an organization, concluded that career success depends on such matters as organizational conditions and access to challenges to increase skills and rewards. Kanter further concluded that the structure of the organization should provide opportunities for women to attain experiences in the organization and prepare them for attaining administrative positions.

Participants in the present study stated that being recognized and given opportunities to advance and to increase their skills in administration were key to their career advancement. McGee's (1994) study of women CSREES directors identified and described early life experiences up to and including early careers. This study included the participants' early careers and described their seizing opportunities and achieving career success to senior-level administrative positions in Extension.

Women in the study found having the correct credentials and being connected to an academic department were critical to career success. Maddy's (1992) study found that academic training and work histories varied greatly, but all CSREES women in her study had the required credentials and competencies, and the appropriate terminal degree that allowed them to pursue career opportunities.

A connection to an academic department early as young professionals was important to participants in this present study, because it allowed them to gain credibility in their work and become known. Most women administrators began their careers along the most familiar route, the academic track, holding a faculty position in an academic department (Ironside, 1981; Touchton, Shavlik, & Davis, 1993; Warner, Brazzell, Allen, Bostick, & Marin, 1988).

For the women in this study, as each new experience heightened their desire to move to the next step, to become an Extension leader, they learned to position themselves for advancement. Professional development was also key to their achievements. However, participants found "touting your own accomplishments" was a "stumbling block for women." One specifically stated, "women are socialized not to tout their own accomplishments and that is why it is such a 'double edged sword'; [they] almost subconsciously hide their light under a barrel as they are socialized that it's better to be pretty than to be smart." This statement is consistent with the findings of Tierney and Bensimon (1996) related to socialization of women in academe.


The fourth major theme emerging from the present study was gender, with its subtheme, balancing personal and professional issues. Participants in this study found that being a woman was an issue in interviewing, in being hired, and, at times, in working. They found it was easier to move up into a recognized administrative position in their own states, where colleagues, clientele, and stakeholders, as well as those who had the power of making hiring decisions, knew and trusted them, were familiar with their work, were comfortable with them, and accepted them "as one of us." (This finding is contrary to studies of women administrators in higher education, who have tended to build their careers by moving between institutions [Johnsrud, 1991; Moore, 1983; Sagria, 1988].)

Personal contacts and nominations by men appear to be important to women in the search process and in the selection of women as senior-level administrators in Extension at land-grant universities. Shaw's (1994) research with women administrators found that "women as a group have not experienced the advantage of the 'old boy' network and that women do not operate from a power base made up of other women." This is especially true in CSREES, where there are very few women administrators at the director level.

This study indicates that there may be the start of a paradigm shift as the women in the study have formed peer advisory mentorships with males. A few participants were beginning to find acceptance and were being nominated and recruited for senior-level administrative positions.

Balancing personal and professional issues was not a major concern for participants until they had children. At that point, the balance became much more difficult. Betz and Fitzgerald's (1985) research shows that women who have achieved positions of leadership have made personal choices about career and family. Women in the present study have been flexible and adaptable; they have shifted and changed as their life circumstances have changed and have made deliberate choices related to their career progression.

Conclusions, Recommendations, Implications

The general conclusion of this study was that a woman's advancement to a directorship in Extension administration is a complex combination of factors, such as positioning, networking, matching organizational norms, and taking advantage of mentoring. This combination manifests itself in individualized career paths that have led to the top for these participants.

The following implications are based on the findings and suggest that Extension organizations need to encourage women who desire a state directorship or senior-level leadership position in CSREES do the following.

  • Develop background and expertise in agriculture. However, CSREES should explore how backgrounds other than agriculture can be of value to administrators and develop ways to educate search committees in this area.

  • Develop networks and relationships, and be deliberate in seeking out role models and mentors.

  • Attain the Ph.D. as early as possible, seek connections to academic departments, and rise as high as possible within one institution or area where they are known and trusted, rather than "job-hop."

  • Take advantage of as many varied experiences and professional development opportunities as possible.

  • Tout their own accomplishments.

  • Develop political acumen and become politically savvy.

Recommendations for future research include the need to explore further:

  1. Whether women should remain at the same institution as they advance in their careers,
  2. The nature and development of political acumen and its use in career progression,
  3. The kind of mentors women require to progress to senior-level leadership positions, and
  4. The creation, operation, and support of women's networks.

A research study is also needed to identify the career progression of women CSREES administrators at 1890s land-grant universities and the gender-related differences between male and female state directors, what they are, and how they affect career progression.

The career progression of male CSREES directors and administrators at 1862 (Traditionally White), 1890 (Historically Black), and 1995s (Native American) land-grant universities should also be compared with the results of this study to identify differing factors. And a research study is needed to examine the organizational norms of Extension; to determine which norms are barriers to women and which are advantages; and how these operate.


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