A Herd of Unicorns: Transformational Women Academics in STEM

Date of Award


Degree Name

Ph.D. in Educational Leadership


Department of Educational Administration


Advisor: Mary Ziskin


In 2018, women earned 58% of all bachelor’s degrees in higher education, yet only 36% of all STEM degrees (McCullough, 2019). Currently, 30% of the STEM workforce in the United States is made up on long-term, non-citizen residents and immigrants. Houssain and Robinson (2012) noted the importance of increasing the number of Americans pursuing STEM fields, as a lack of Americans in this field threatens the United States position as both a STEM and world leader. In the absence of more women in STEM fields, it will be hard to meet STEM workforce demands. Higher education is naturally a place to increase diversity and equity in STEM. Women academics in STEM leadership thereby hold essential information to understand what makes women successful in STEM. This qualitative research study used a constructivist, narrative inquiry method to investigate the lived experiences of women academics in STEM fields who have participated in the Executive Leadership in Academic Technology, Engineering, and Science (ELATES) program. ELATES is a leadership development program designed specifically for individuals who identify as women and advocates of women, who are mid-career professionals in STEM. ELATES provides leadership training for the purpose of advancing these professionals into leadership 4 positions on campuses across the United States and Canada. Utilizing an intersectional, feminist inquiry approach allowed the researcher to consider the multidimensional identities participants hold and how intersecting systems of power and oppression may impact their lives and careers. In addition, the researcher investigated participants’ experiences with mentoring and networking, focusing on whether and how participants continued to use these skills and resources to advance other members of their campus community. The study’s findings offer insight into the ELATES program and (1) participants’ self-concepts as leaders, (2) mentoring and networking among women in STEM fields, and (3) participants’ systematic analyses of equity and climate in STEM. A majority of the participants felt the ELATES program had led to increased confidence in their leadership abilities and more openness to applying for higher-level leadership roles. Participants credited mentors—teachers, graduate school colleagues, and employers— with helping them to succeed. Many also attributed their continued success to the support they received from their ELATES cohorts. Several participants recognized the obstacles present for women academics in STEM, and discussed the need to change the overall system, rather than changing the individual to fit into the flawed system. Challenges such as childcare, achieving tenure, and the hidden workload were discussed. Implications from the study suggest that ELATES program may be used as a retention tool for promising leaders on university campuses, and to increase the number of women academics in leadership roles within STEM fields. This will ensure the voice of women is heard when making important policy decisions. Implications also suggested changes to policies of tenure and childcare, normalizing a stoppage of the tenure clock 5 and having more flexible work schedules to allow for child rearing. Finally, attention must be paid to the hidden workload experienced by all women, often most severely by women with minoritized identities.


STEM, ELATES, Mentoring, Networking, Systemic Inequalities, Climate and Culture

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