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Changing of the Guard - By Michael Rainey

The growth of female university presidents has stalled over the past decade, but there’s new hope on the horizon.

Society has evolved considerably from just a half century ago, when the stereotype surrounding women was that of a “housewife” – someone who stayed home, raised children and performed daily household chores. Things are much different here in the second decade of the 21st century, as women are not only front and center in the workforce, they are leaders and innovators in many business sectors.

However, the world of academia has proven to be a challenging mountain for women to climb, particularly when it comes to attaining top leadership positions.  While women accounted for 42 percent of the full-time faculty at degree-granting institutions as of 2007, only 23 percent of college presidents and just 24 percent of full-time college professors are female, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU). That’s a fairly low percentage when you consider that women account for 59 percent of master’s degree recipients and nearly 50 percent of those who receive doctoral degrees. However, a 2009 report by White House Project titled “Benchmarking Women’s Leadership” looked at the percentage of female CEO’s across 10 different sectors, including higher education, and found that women hold 18 percent of top leadership positions on average. So, in reality, while the percentage of female university presidents is quite low, it’s actually a tick above the number of female CEOs.

“We are still not satisfied with where the numbers in higher education currently lie and we think we can do better,” said Diana I. Córdova, director of the Center for Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity at the American Council on Education (ACE).

Another statistic that Córdova is not satisfied with is the lack of upward movement in the percentage of female university presidents since the late 1990s. Only 10 percent of university presidents in 1986 were women, and that number grew to the aforementioned 23 percent two decades later. It’s worth pointing out, however, that the percentage hasn’t increased at all since the late ‘90s, so most of the growth took place in just a single decade (late ‘80s to late ‘90s). Growth has been basically stagnant the last 12-15 years.  

Debora Spar has been the president of Barnard College, a liberal arts college for women located in New York City, for the past three years. Prior to joining Barnard she worked for 17 years at the male-dominated Harvard Business School, where she faced more than a few barriers.  “I loved [Harvard Business School] and learned a lot, but I certainly did experience obstacles that were particular to women,” she said. “It’s tougher, not just in academia but everywhere. I think one of the tough things in academia is that some think it’s easier than it would be on Wall Street or in corporate America, and I think to some extent that’s true, but women still encounter different kinds of issues in academia than [their counterparts] in those other sectors.”

Spar doesn’t feel as if she has ever faced overt discrimination of any kind throughout her career in academia, but a woman rising up the ladder at a male-dominated institution can lead to some issues. “As you ascend the ranks, you find yourself more and more often being the only woman in the room,” she said. “I wouldn’t really call it discrimination that I faced [at Harvard], it was just the reality of frequently being the only woman in the room.” 

One primary factor in the low percentage of women who ascend into these positions is the ongoing struggle of balancing a demanding career with a family life. The American Council on Education reports that as of 2006, only 63 percent of women presidents were married, compared to 89 percent of male presidents. Being the president of a university comes with numerous responsibilities and requires long hours; Spar says she frequently arrives at work at 7am and doesn’t leave until 10 or 11pm in the evening.

“It’s hard juggling a high-powered career in any field along with a marriage and a couple of kids,” said Spar, who is married with three children.  “I think the overall reason you don’t see more female presidents is that you are not seeing more women rising into the levels from which presidents would be chosen, so the problem is occurring earlier in their careers. But once you do get into the presidential position, it’s hard on families. Basically the spouse is pulled into an accompanying role, which generally has been taken by a wife. Presidents and their wives tend to play a ceremonial role in colleges, and I think we are still stumbling towards a parallel in which presidents and their husbands play that same ceremonial role.”

While others share Spar’s theory about the lack of women filtering into the positions from which university presidents are typically chosen, the data actually proves otherwise.  According to a 2008 ACE report titled “On the Path to the Presidency,” 45 percent of all senior administrators, 38 percent of chief academic officers, and 36 percent of deans are women, and these are the primary positions that feed into presidential positions. So if the feeder positions are well stocked with women, why the low percentage of female presidents?

“I think it takes a while for the pipeline to be as rich as it is now,” Córdova said. “My projection is that we’ll see more women joining the presidential ranks over the next decade because of the number of presidential retirements that are projected to occur within the next five years.”

Córdova says that 49 percent of all university presidents are over the age of 61, so that indicates that there is a definite wave of presidential retirements is coming over the next few years that will open up more opportunities for women and minorities to ascend into those positions.  Currently, only four percent of university presidents are women of color.

“There’s reason to be optimistic about the future,” Córdova said. “The potential is there, but I would also like to see greater diversity on the boards that do all the hiring. I think that is going to be a critical factor in terms of getting more women into the presidency position. Just 30 percent of board members at private colleges and 28 percent of board members at public institutions are women.”

Although the last decade saw almost no growth in the percentage of females who ascended to the prestigious president’s chair, it appears as though the coming years are likely to see that percentage grow exponentially.

Michael Rainey is the Editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.
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