December 2001 // Volume 39 // Number 6 // Research in Brief // 6RIB1

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Cracking the Concrete Ceiling: Inquiry into the Aspirations, Values, Motives, and Actions of African American Female 1890 Cooperative Extension Administrators

The potential population Extension serves continues to become more ethnically diverse. Does Extension administrative leadership reflect diversity in both ethnicity and gender? In most states the answer is "no". It is the authors' premise that if the numbers of minority administrators increases, so will the number of minorities in county program positions, and thus, the number of minority clientele. This article provides research findings related to challenges current African American women administrators face, what they believe contributed to their success in breaking the concrete ceiling within the 1890 Cooperative Extension System, and professional development suggestions for African American females aspiring to Extension administrative positions.

Marjorie Moore
County Extension Director/Family & Consumer Sciences Agent IV
University of Florida Extension
Panama City, Florida
Internet Address:

Jo Jones
Program Leader, Learning and Leadership
Ohio State University Extension
Columbus, Ohio
Internet Address:


The potential population Extension serves continues to become more ethnically diverse. Does Extension administrative leadership reflect diversity in both ethnicity and gender? In most states the answer is "no."

Statement of the Problem

The study reported here investigated the plight of African American women administrators in historically black 1890 land-grant institutions. There are low numbers of African American women administrators currently employed in these institutions. The limited number of African American women administrators makes it difficult for aspiring female leaders to find African American role models who have been successful in cracking the "concrete ceiling."

This term, which is very similar to the "glass ceiling," is defined as those artificial barriers based on attitudinal or organizational bias that prevent qualified individuals from advancing upward in their organization into management level positions. "Concrete ceiling" not only restricts access to top-level positions but middle management positions. It is denser and not as easily shattered.

The glass ceiling is identified primarily as a women's issue; however, evidence shows that minorities are faced with insurmountable barriers as they attempt to move upward (U. S. Department of Labor, 1997). In spite of laws and policies that have opened doors for women and people of color, an invisible barrier still remains (Ayman, 1997).

During the early periods of Extension, there were no female administrators in 1862 or 1890 Extension Systems. Currently, in the 56 1862 land-grant universities, there are 9% (5) female directors, 7% (4) female associate directors, and 2% (1) female interim directors, all of whom are Caucasian, except for one African American female associate director. In the 17 1890 land-grant universities, including Tuskegee, there are 24% (4) female administrators, 12% (2) female associate administrators, and 6% (1) acting female associate administrator, all of whom are African American. These low numbers result in a lack of role models for aspiring women administrators; however, in comparison to 1862 land-grant Universities, 1890 land-grant Universities are doing a much better job in hiring African American females in administrative positions.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of the study was to explore and describe the challenges African American women administrators face and what they believe contributes to their success in breaking the concrete ceiling within the 1890 Cooperative Extension System (CES).

Maddy's (1992) study, Women Who Shattered The Glass Ceiling: Postpositivist Inquiry into the Aspirations, Values, Motives and Actions of Women Serving as CEOs of Cooperative Extension Systems, featured female administrators in 1862 institutions. This current study was in part a replication of Maddy's study, but with a focus on female administrators in 1890 institutions.


The specific approach of this qualitative study was the use of triangulation to assess how these women were successful in breaking the concrete ceiling. Source triangulation was used, which included unstructured and structured observations, personal interviews, open-ended questions, biographical data, and member checks. A set of open-ended questions was used with the final member's check. These data were cross-referenced to determine the credibility of emerging themes.

A case study approach was used to reveal the thoughts of participants. Patton (1987) affirms the idea of case studies for one to understand a particular problem or situation more in depth. Sturman (1997) indicates that a case study is an investigation of an individual. The researcher conducting a case study believes that "to understand a case, to explain why things happen as they do, and to generalize or predict from a single example requires an in-depth investigation of the interdependencies of parts and of the patterns that emerge" (Sturman, 1997, p. 61).

Data for the study were analyzed inductively. Inductive data analysis was compared to content analysis, which is a process aimed at uncovering embedded information and making it explicit.

Prolonged and persistent observation was needed to establish credibility for the purpose of learning the culture of the environment. Persistent observation distinguished what was real from what was not real. As a result of observing each of the six subjects for a period of five days, trust was built. This process was important to bring out the most salient points (Guba & Lincoln, 1997). The researcher observed the participants in their natural environment and took notes in the form of a daily diary. "A primary purpose of observational description is to take the reader of the evaluation report into the program setting that was observed" (Patton, 1987, p. 12). Observations involved everything from examining incoming mail to observing how personnel issues were handled.

To begin the induction process, participants were interviewed about their success using an instrument that included opened-ended questions. For example, one question was "what does it take for an African American woman to achieve a top leadership position within 1890 Cooperative Extension Systems?" Many questions included probe questions to get more in-depth information.

The computerized program "NUD*IST" (Non-numerical, Unstructured, Data, Indexing, Searching, and Theorizing) was used as a way of unitizing and categorizing raw data. This process is based on principles of Glaser and Strauss' (1967) grounded theory, but it is flexible to accommodate other frameworks. The data consists of two hyperlinked systems, document and index. The document system manages data documents by storing them along with data about them. An index system is created, managed, and explored from ideas and categories by using "NODES." A node is like a folder for data or could be described as a parking space.


The participants had varied work experiences and years of experience. They prepared themselves through additional leadership trainings for their leadership role. They set records as being "the first female" administrator in the 1890 Cooperative Extension System at their institution. The average age was 51.2, and ranged from 43 to 57. Eight broadly defined themes emerged from the data to support the common values, motives, and actions of these women administrators. The themes were:

  • Barriers,
  • Leadership style,
  • Work environment,
  • Communication,
  • Conflict management,
  • Decision-making,
  • Professional development, and
  • Success.

The values, beliefs, and rules of the organizations in which the female administrators worked influenced every aspect of how things got done. Although their backgrounds varied, there were more similarities than differences among them. The women appeared to be comfortable with their own leadership styles, which encompassed a spirit for teamwork and open lines of communication.

Their success was attributed to a solid upbringing, both parents in the home during their early childhood, a strong religious foundation, and parents' strong belief in education. Because they are unique in their positions, they have "reached out" to each other, resulting in the formation of an informal support group. They look to each other for problem solving and programming collaborations.


Based upon the review of literature and the findings, the following conclusions were reached.

  1. This study revealed that it was the personal and professional characteristics that contributed to the African American females breaking through the concrete ceiling.

  2. Though their jobs seemed to result in a hectic lifestyle, participants still time for church and family. Extension employees across the United States voice concern about balancing their personal and professional lives. Because the administrators in this study seem to be successful in obtaining a balance, they can serve as positive role models for other Extension employees.

  3. Though all participants have an academic background in Family and Consumer Sciences, they all continue to remain current in professional development activities focused on leadership, which helps them in their administrative roles.

  4. Each administrator was committed to "the power of positive thinking." This was evident in the approaches they took when communicating, making decisions, and in conflict management situations. Their approach to dealing with issues was more proactive as opposed to reactive.

  5. The 1890 institutions are confronted with small staffs and limited budgets; however, these women administrators did not let this hinder quality programming. While they could not provide their staff members with a large pool of financial resources, they compensated for it by encouraging creativity and risk-taking in program implementation and delivery. They provided support through an attitude of pitching in and helping when needed.

  6. The six female administrators appeared to be comfortable with their own leadership styles, which encompassed a spirit for teamwork and open lines of communication.

  7. During their early childhood, each of the female administrators was influenced by a high degree of spirituality that influenced their current leadership style. Their parents were a guiding force in their spiritual development. Most of the fathers were viewed as more influential than the mothers in the women's professional development and career success.

  8. During the data collection for this study, the existence of chauvinistic behavior and dominance displayed by some African American men at these 1890 institutions became apparent. The female administrators demonstrated extraordinary resiliency in dealing with these behaviors.

  9. Because all six female administrators were "the first females" in their administrative role, they did not have access to female Extension administrator role models. These six females are now willing, and see it as a responsibility, to serve as mentors for aspiring leaders.

  10. Because these women are unique in their positions, they have "reached out" to each other, resulting in the formation of an informal support group. They look to each other for problem solving and programming collaborations.

  11. The current African American female administrators indicated no interest in being an administrator in an 1862 Institution. This may result from their strong allegiance to the historically black land-grant institutions. However, the 1862 Institutions are in need of diversifying their administration. As positions become available, current 1890 female administrators could be viable candidates.


The review of literature, findings, and conclusions led the researcher to formulate recommendations for the Cooperative Extension System, aspiring African American female leaders, and further research.

Cooperative Extension System

It is recommended that:

  1. The system identify women currently in the organization who aspire to future leadership positions.
  2. The system continue to support training programs for aspiring leaders. These programs can be in the form of a mentoring program, informal networks, leadership intern programs, and leadership programs such as NELD (National Extension Leadership Development Program).
  3. 1890 institutions offer internships for aspiring female administrators so they can learn from the current administrators' knowledge and experiences before the retirement of the current female administrators in the next five to seven years.
  4. The system create a formal mentoring program for both current and aspiring African American female leaders.
  5. The system provide a sensitivity training on "teams in transition."  This training could be used when a new female administrator joins a team.
  6. The 1862 system consider 1890 administrators as a viable pool of applicants when searching for new administrators.

Aspiring African American Female Leaders

It is recommended that:

  1. Aspiring leaders attain a terminal degree in an appropriate area of study that will prepare them for an administrative role.
  2. Aspiring leaders develop capacities and competencies for decision-making, communicating, conflict resolution, leading, motivating, staffing, and planning.
  3. Aspiring leaders become part of a network of current "female or male" administrators to develop a personal mentoring relationship with a current leader.
  4. Aspiring leaders develop their own leadership philosophy and begin to demonstrate their unique leadership style.
  5. Aspiring leaders develop a dossier that reflects diverse experiences, academic achievements, professional development participation, and serving in leadership roles in professional associations.

Further Study

It is recommended that:

  1. A study be conducted to determine why African Americans in 1890 institutions have had more success breaking through the concrete ceiling than females in 1862 institutions.
  2. A study be conducted to probe further into the differences and similarities among the six African American females, through the use of leadership and personality assessment tools (e.g., Myers Briggs Type Indicator).
  3. A study is conducted to determine how personnel perceive the leadership of these six females.
  4. A longitudinal study be conducted to follow the accomplishments, activities, and career path of the current six female administrators in the 1890 institutions.
  5. A study be conducted to compare the characteristics of these six females in the study with African American females in CES who are not in administrative positions.

If Extension increases leadership development opportunities for minorities, the organization should experience an increase of minorities in leadership positions. This helps the potential minority employee realize that there is possibility for advancement in an Extension career. There is also a correlation that, as the number of minority leaders increases, so will the number of minorities in county program positions, and thus, an increase in minority clientele.


Ayman, R. (1997). Leadership and the glass ceiling. In K. Cushner & R. W. Brislin (Eds.), Improving intercultural interactions: Modules for cross-cultural training programs, (vol. 3, pp. 74-87).

Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Chicago, IL: Aldine.

Guba, E. G., & Lincoln, Y. S. (1997). Naturalistic and rationalistic inquiry. In J. P. Keeves (Ed.) Educational research, methodology, and measurement: An international handbook(2nd ed., pp. 86-90). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Maddy, D. J. (1992). Women who shattered the glass ceiling: Postpositivist inquiry into the aspirations, values, motives, and actions of women serving as CEOs of Cooperative Extension Systems (Doctoral dissertation, The Ohio State University, 1992). Dissertation Abstracts International, M32.

Patton, M. Q. (1987). How to use qualitative methods in evaluation. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Sturman, A. (1997). Case study methods. In J. P. Keeves (Ed.), Educational research, methodology, and measurement: An international handbook(2nd ed., pp. 61-66). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

U.S. Department of Labor. (1997). The glass ceiling initiative: Are there cracks in the ceiling?Washington, DC: Employment Standards Administration, Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.