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Leave Admissions? Maybe I’d Like to Be a Dean

starlingphoto2The ranks of high-level admissions professionals are overwhelmingly male. In a guest post today, Megan Starling, an associate director of admission at Rhodes College, lays out one reason women are less likely to be in the top jobs.

“It’s great to see you, Megan! How are things at Rhodes? How much longer do you think you’ll stay in admission?”

That line of questioning is not unfamiliar to me, even while catching up with friends at the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual conference. One session offered at the most recent meeting, in September in Toronto, questioned why more women don’t serve in the highest leadership positions on college campuses, including the office of admission.

The data that were presented mirror what our everyday experiences demonstrate: overwhelmingly female staff at the assistant- and associate-director level and overwhelmingly male staff at the director, dean, and presidential level. In addition to the message this sends to our young female talent, such a gender imbalance is striking given that more women than men now attend, and graduate from, our colleges and universities.

After panelists shared personal stories of obtaining leadership roles, many audience members were eager to comment. Needless to say, the audience consisted mostly of women. Some praised male supervisors who supported upward mobility, but an antimale sentiment was also present.

After listening to each hypothesis that attempted to explain our apparent glass ceiling, I stepped up to the microphone to introduce a missing piece to the puzzle: the role that women play in encouraging and supporting one another’s professional paths. In my own experience, it is women who anticipate my desire to leave the field. Rarely, except for my male bosses, has anyone asked me about aspirations for positions of leadership.

Why do my colleagues, most of them female, assume that I want to leave college admission rather than pursue promotion within it?

Now, I’m not suggesting that the hierarchy in admission flips to male domination at the top exclusively because of those conversations. There are certainly many reasons that women tend to leave our industry, any of which might prompt the assumption about my future professional plans. In my experience, challenging hours, too much travel, and limited upward mobility without changing institutions play a large role in women’s choices, especially for those who plan to start a family.

It’s no secret that many offices have a natural turnover rate of two to three years, with recent graduates among the least likely to stay. For an entry-level employee, my story is something of an anomaly because I came to admission with a master’s degree and nearly seven years of outside work experience. I was well aware of the “real world” by the time I found my job as an assistant director of admission. Finally finding a job that highlighted my strengths, reflected my interests, and existed within an educational culture provided a convincing reason to stay for much longer than a couple of years.

In large part because of my bosses’ investment in me, my responsibilities and opportunities for professional development have also evolved from that entry-level position to create a challenging and fulfilling career.

I’m lucky to work for an institution that highly values building relationships, with both our students and our counselors. After traveling territories for five years now, I have plenty of conversations with high-school counselors that don’t involve Rhodes. Those colleagues know that I’m recently married and frequently ask about my desire to start a family. The expectation that I am seeking a switch to the high-school side often follows. The demands of the travel season can be difficult as family commitments grow, so the inquiries about leaving admission don’t surprise me.

I believe that a sustainable work life in my current office can be achieved, especially with supportive leadership. Women have to be vocal about what they want and need in a job that will allow them to stay—and pursue greater responsibility. That is our obligation and challenge in any office, not something that is limited to working in college admission.

I want to make clear that I highly value the hard work and long hours committed by many of my friends who serve as college counselors. I do not view switching to the other side of the desk as a demotion—on the contrary, many are hired into director-level positions. However, I also think that the work we do in college admission is significant and life changing.

It devalues our whole industry when jobs like mine are viewed as temporary or as steppingstones to a different career path. If we want more women holding the jobs of director, dean, and president, we should start by creating a culture that sustains them professionally and personally, and provides an expectation of advancement.

Those of us who have survived the usual attrition timeline should endeavor to serve as advisers to our less-experienced colleagues who might not recognize the possibilities that await them without a career change. While we must always advocate for our own best interests, our professional mentors should engage us in discussions about a promotion strategy rather than an exit strategy.

In raising questions about why women leave the field of admission, let’s also examine the role we play as co-workers, colleagues, supervisors, and friends in directing our best talent to strive for leadership roles on college campuses. If you run into me on the road, that’s certainly the conversation I hope to have with you.

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