Date of Award

Summer 2019

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational Foundations & Leadership


Community College Leadership

Committee Director

Mitchell R. Williams

Committee Member

Felecia Commodore

Committee Member

Kim B. Sibson


Although women lead at higher rates overall at community colleges, they continue to lead at lower rates in senior-level positions compared to men within those institutions. Women serve as presidents in 36% of community colleges (ACE, 2017). Additionally, community college presidents are currently retiring at rapid rates, and this turnover in leadership is expected to continue (Phillipe, 2016; Shults, 2001; Tekle, 2012). As community colleges face current and future reductions in senior-level leadership, women in mid-level leadership roles should be considered to fill the leadership gap.

Previous studies have examined the leadership challenges faced by women leaders, but there has been a focus on presidents and vice presidents. There is a need to assess the leadership experiences of women in mid-level positions, specifically deans and directors, and to identify their unique mobility challenges. Gender differences, including the internalization of social norms and gender bias and stereotyping, can potentially impact women’s leadership development and opportunities for professional advancement. This study provided a better understanding for community college leaders and practitioners, emphasizing the importance of more effective navigational tools, better leadership training and development, and inclusive and intentional leadership funnels and hiring practices for women mid-level leaders.

The purpose of this qualitative, phenomenological study was to examine women leaders in mid-level positions and their perceptions of the personal, professional, and organizational challenges unique to them as leaders in urban community colleges, which tend to be larger and more complex than rural and suburban community colleges. Participants discussed these perceived challenges through in-depth, semi-structured interviews. Participants also described how they have attempted to navigate these challenges. Ten women, in positions of dean or director, were purposively selected from three urban community colleges in one southeastern US state. One-on-one interviews were conducted, providing the women leaders with opportunities to tell their own narratives and describe their lived experiences as mid-level leaders.

Moustakas’ (1994) seven-step phenomenological data analysis framework was used to examine the data. An analysis of the data revealed five major themes: (a) leadership progression, (b) work-life balance, (c) mentorship and professional development, (d) communication, and (e) institutional climate and organizational structure. Recommendations for community college practitioners and leaders include: encouraging and providing opportunities and support for mentorship; creating and funding professional development opportunities; and assisting women leaders with doctoral degree completion. Recommendations for further research include additional qualitative research focused on the following groups: women in mid-level positions in other regions of the country; women of color in mid-level positions; women in mid-level positions in suburban and rural community colleges; and men in mid-level positions in various community college settings.