Women & Admission/Enrollment: Walking the Career Tightrope

Women & Admission/Enrollment: Walking the Career Tightrope

Published in the Winter 2015 issue of The Yield

A woman’s fight to get ahead. Her internal struggle of career versus family. Pay inequities. The challenge of finding support networks both inside and outside of work. A workshop delivered on these topics by four women in admission at The Enrollment Management Association’s 2015 Annual Meeting inspired us to take a closer look.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women constitute 47% of the workforce at 31 million strong. 70.5% of them are working mothers, and 64% of them earn 73 cents to every dollar earned by their male counterparts.

How do independent schools stack up? According to The Enrollment Management Association’s 2013 State of the Independent School Admission Industry report, 67% of day school admission directors are women. In boarding schools, where the admission teams and budgets tend to be larger, only 44% are women. NAIS reported that male directors of admission at day schools make an average of 13.67% more than their female counterparts, despite the fact that they are outnumbered 3:1, and male directors of admission at boarding schools make an average of 19.5% more (NAIS StatsOnline, 2013). 

These data readily reflect gender inequities in independent school admission, yet the root causes are more complex.

Making the Career Choice

Susanna Jones, head of school at The Holton-Arms School (MD), feels that women and admission are a natural fit. “It’s an area that women gravitate to and where they have found success,” she explains. “Without succumbing to stereotypes, this is partially because admission requires a deep personal connection to the family, the student, and the school community.” Scott Looney, a former admission officer who currently serves as the head of The Hawken School (OH), agrees that it’s a relational profession and there are traits that help women succeed quickly in it. “The ability to listen and be empathic is more common among women and something I wish I saw in more men in admission,” he explains. “A well-run admission office strikes a balance between the relational side and the highly process-oriented effort that determines the metrics for a school’s success. Women excel in both areas and have an ability to remain true to the applying family.”

Ben Bolte, Senior Search Consultant at Carney Sandoe & Associates, agrees that admission is a touchpoint job, where connecting with and reading people is important for success. Yet, he has perceived a key difference in his placement work. “Because of the nature of the position, I suspect that women find it more compatible than most men do in their early 20s, due to the need for heavy communication and connections. However, at the director level or more senior associate level, where the shift moves away from touchpoints with students and toward data management and strategic planning, I see more men showing interest in positions,” he states.

Bolte speculates that where women end up is sometimes the result of family choices. “It’s particularly interesting with boarding schools,” explains Bolte. “The men and women who join a boarding staff early in their career do an extensive amount of traveling. When seeking to move on, we see many women move to the day school arena where they don’t have to travel, or simply end their career in admission when family demands come into play. In day schools, there are fewer positions available, as they tend to have smaller offices than boarding schools, so one can assume that there are fewer opportunities for growth. Frankly, qualifications and competence are equal across the sexes; we just see a difference in timing and choice. While not ubiquitous, the historic stereotype of women focusing more on family and men on career is also likely still at play.” 

Is Leaning Enough?

After a successful TEDTalk and the release of her thought-provoking book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg appeared on the scene as the new face of women in the workplace. In her book, Sandberg argues that women can be their own worst enemies—hindering their own career advancement by failing to assert themselves and sabotaging themselves with a desire to be "liked."

While Sandberg’s book encourages women to tackle workplace bias and their own internal struggles around self-confidence, Anne Marie Slaughter, a law professor, Princeton University dean, and now president of the nonpartisan think tank New America, believes the workplace—not the female mindset—must change and adapt.

She has stated, “Plenty of women have leaned in for all they’re worth but still run up against insuperable obstacles created by the combination of unpredictable life circumstances and the rigid inflexibilities of our workplaces, the lack of a public infrastructure of care, and cultural attitudes that devalue them the minute they step out, or even just lean back, from the workforce.”

Slaughter received public praise for these statements but also criticism, as many felt she addressed only affluent professionals and failed to focus on the larger group of women in the workforce in retail or service positions. Slaughter’s recent book, Unfinished Business, addresses these criticisms and looks at the struggle of women at all wage levels: “What unites all women is the struggle to combine competition and care in a system that rewards one and penalizes the other.”

The Conscious and Unconscious Bias

Sandberg and Slaughter may present different ideas about the root cause of gender inequality, but neither tread lightly around discrimination in the workplace, and many of those with whom we spoke had stories to tell about their experiences in independent schools.

One female director explained how she felt marginalized by an “old school” board during a board presentation. “I was a 26-year-old director of admission with the support of the beloved head of school, yet when I presented, it was clear that I was ‘the little girl’ in the room, despite my data-based points regarding admission and enrollment strategy.”

One interviewee explained how her head was incredibly supportive when she told him she was pregnant. Being relatively new to the school and having the child in the middle of the admission season, she chose to come back six weeks after giving birth. While pumping breast milk in a closet, she heard her head of school come into the admission office, looking for her during a high-pressure time in the admission cycle, and asking the staff with disdain, “Is she in that closet again? How long is this going to go on?”

One woman told the story of a head who was surprised that she had already handled a potentially delicate situation with a male admission committee member. “I told my head that I was having trouble with him coming to committee meetings unprepared. He jumped in to offer me advice on how to handle the situation. When I told him that I already resolved the issue without conflict, he expressed genuine surprise. That was quite a wake-up call for me.”

Another woman spoke about a school benefit specific to men’s attire. When she and other women on campus worked to have the benefit become gender-neutral, it was adopted but met with hostility across campus. “Men on campus, who were used to having this benefit, saw our request for a gender-equal benefit as ‘angry women’ causing problems,” she explained. “Still, the gender bias on campus went well beyond this. I attended faculty meetings in which all women would sit in the back row and not speak, not because they were told not to, but because it was the social norm at the school.”

Competence Meets Confidence

Stories like these can be eye opening. But are our independent schools filled with fewer opportunities for women, just because they are women?

Priscilla Sands, head of school at The Marlborough School (CA), and a former enrollment leader, feels the role of admission has changed from gatekeeper to enrollment manager and that anyone looking to advance should just focus on mastering the job. “Heads these days spend a significant amount of time working on enrollment,” she says. “A good admission director becomes a huge resource and strategist for a head. Yet, with smaller staffs, they must maintain the rigor of the daily relationship-building with families, across administrative and faculty teams, and their own staff. I see many women handle this ball-juggling with ease. Frankly, if I were looking for my next enrollment leader, I’d be looking for competence and confidence.”

Molly Dorais, director of admission and financial aid at Colorado Rocky Mountain School (CO), explains that while she certainly may have had the competency to go to the next level, she, like many other women, may not always have exuded the confidence. She explained: “When working with other women, I see that we tend not to go for that next thing unless we’re sure we’re ready, prepared, and have ‘checked all of the boxes’ of what’s required. Men seem to have more confidence to just go for it and figure it out. I wish we would all stop second guessing ourselves.”

Looney agrees that there are differences between the sexes: “I’ve seen ambitious women talk themselves out of things because they believed they needed to be over-prepared, and more often than not, I have to talk women into applying for a position and talk men out of applying. To some degree, ego trumps reasonableness for men, whereas for women preparation trumps opportunity. Self-reflection and feedback from a trusted group of peers or a mentor is critical to get over these humps.”

The Importance of Networking & Mentors

What started as a casual group of admission professionals asking questions about similar experiences in admission offices quickly turned into a support group of women admission leaders who meet twice a year. While the “original” support group was formed some time ago, the latest iteration includes Dorais, Victoria Muradi, director of enrollment management at Durham Academy (NC) and an EMA trustee, EMA trustee Rachel Skiffer, head of school for Khan Lab School (CA), and founding member Anne Frame Sheppard, educational consultant at AFS Consulting (MI) and former assistant head of school for enrollment at University Liggett School (MI), the women who made up the panel of the “Leaning In: Women & Admission” workshop at the the EMA 2015 Annual Meeting.

“We rely on each other and support each other’s successes,” explains Skiffer. “We each have unique challenges, and in our meetings, we challenge each other’s practices, coach each other on communication strategies, and push each other to the next level. We have a tight group, and we know each other well. When one of us has an issue or a challenge, we pose it to the group. Everyone is responsive, supportive, and honest in providing feedback. Playing to our strengths, Anne fields the calls about managing boards, while Molly and Victoria take on the inquiries about enrollment management strategies and coaching team members. I tend to focus on the financial aid calls and also provide advice when a new job offer is on the table. I often try to pose the question, ‘If you were a man, what do you think you would ask for?’ We’re lucky we have one another to keep moving each other forward.”

The benefits of having a professional mentor are real and well researched. Victoria Muradi found a mentor in her former head, Ed Costello. “He hired me, he guided me, he let me sail, and he let me make mistakes,” she explained. “Ed gave me perspective, encouraged me in his own subtle way, and pushed me to understand that I belonged in the Durham Academy community—and that I was already a member of the leadership team, whether I knew it or not.”

“What I think many forget is that there is no need to distinguish successful characteristics around gender lines,” said Costello. “Filling schools and administrative teams with men and women who are aligned with the mission of the school and know why they are there and what they need to do should be the focus for any head, or any leader for that matter. As a mentor, it’s your job to remind people that they were put into their position for a reason and there should be no question about one’s competency.”

Sands agrees: “As the leader of our school, I take the job of guiding and shepherding leaders to new positions—on and off my campus—very seriously,” she said. “I’m surprised women need to stand up and talk about ambition and salaries, and some even feel they must apologize for it. As a head, it’s not my job to accept the apology; it’s my job to help my staff member grow and define their future.”

Career Path or Jungle Gym?

“A jungle gym scramble is the best description of my career,” wrote Sandberg, who attributes the metaphor to Fortune magazine editor Pattie Sellers. “I could never have connected the dots from where I started to where I am today.” While admission tends to be a direct path for some men and women, other women identify with the metaphor.

Molly Dorais reflects, “While I’ve been at the same school for my entire 13-year career, I’ve moved through different positions and different aspects—finding the right mentor, refining and growing my skills, evolving with a changing school, etc. I had to constantly evaluate what I wanted and figure out how to make it happen. This became particularly critical when I was balancing my work and family life and had to understand that even if my career was moving laterally, it was still moving. I’m also fortunate to be at a school that values both work and family life. It’s allowed me to have a career that I love while still being very present for my family.”

For some, the pull of admission is great. “As a woman in leadership, I definitely see that my path is different from my male counterparts,” says Sheppard, “I feel that many men admission leaders aspire to be heads, whereas I feel that many women admission leaders are in love with being in admission. Recently, a group of us talked about this over dinner and realized that we don’t have to apologize for not wanting to be heads. We feel challenged and fulfilled by our jobs.”

Some women interviewed for this article have worked their way to headships. Suzanne Walker Buck, rector at Chatham Hall (VA) and upcoming head of school for Western Reserve Academy (OH), who spent her career in the admission office, went back to school—first to explore clinical social work and then to the Harvard Graduate School of Education to study under Carol Gilligan, a pioneer in gender studies. “Being involved in discussions about the impact of gender in work, education, and individual psychology were pivotal in my career,” she said. “They’ve helped guide my self-reflection, as well as some decisions, and directed me to other strong leaders who have mentored me along the way.”

Even as a head of school, Walker Buck is no different than most of her counterparts in admission when it comes to family balance, yet she also sees other challenges for women in headships: “A head position is incredibly complex; it can be exhilarating and exhausting, at times full of conflict, and at other times, incredibly lonely. For women who tend to use communication as a means of processing information, I worry that the confidential aspects of the job may be a huge barrier to the happiness and longevity of women in the position.”

There is no doubt that women in independent schools battle workplace equity and family challenges and that these issues will remain a matter of community discourse and progress for many years to come. In the hopeful words of Sandberg, “In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.”

Advice for Women (Or Anyone) Looking to Grow in the Field of Admission and Beyond

Ben Bolte–Do jobs no one else wants to broaden your perspective. Learn the workings of the office and database, and take on projects, especially those that involve strategy, board work, or persons outside admission. Learn everyone’s jobs. Take initiative; people notice that. Finish statements and questions in a confident tone of voice.

Ed Costello–Figure out a way to the leadership table and serve as the admission and enrollment voice for the board. Offer honest feedback about what’s being discussed, but also have a plan to deliver on that feedback.

Molly Dorais–Be open to where this job can lead you. Don’t immediately set a path of where you think it’s going to go. Get involved in other aspects of the school outside the admission office, and don’t be afraid to ask for support.

Susanna Jones–People make assumptions about what people want and don’t want. Clear the air early and define your goals and share them with those who will help you achieve them.

Scott Looney–There is a lot of pull to move up, but I’ve seen many people not necessarily happy after taking the big promotion.Think about what you like to do and do what you are good at. Forget about the title and position and be happy with what you do.

Victoria Muradi–Be competent and confident. Find a mentor and remember to pay it forward. Give back to the admission community by volunteering, providing professional development to others, or mentoring another future leader.

Anne Frame Sheppard–Connections with your office staff are just as important as your connections to families. Take the time to know your staff and know what’s important to them professionally and personally.

Rachel Skiffer–If you want to negotiate with your current or future employer and you have a good case, make them tell you “no”— don’t tell yourself no first. After you reach a goal, celebrate it with your peers and then immediately create another goal that builds upon your success.


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