Gender gap: Women represent 57% of college students—but just 26% of school leaders

'We've been at this stage a long time. How long is that going to be the case'

Approximately one in four college presidents is female—a statistic that has remained largely the same for the past 10 years, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Only 23% of all bachelor's and master's level institutions employ female presidents, according to the American Council on Education (ACE). That figure is slightly higher for community colleges—where 33% of presidents are women—and at some elite universities, too. (For example, women lead four of the eight Ivy League universities.)

Overall, only about 26% of institutional leaders are women, the study finds.

That gender gap is especially striking given the composition of students on campus: Women currently represent about 57% of students at degree-granting institutions, the Washington Post reports.

"There are lots of institutions where they're getting their first woman president," says Judith White, president and executive director of Higher Education Resource Services. And that is exactly the problem, she says.

"We've been at this stage a long time. How long is that going to be the case?" she asks.

Shifting the culture

A 1975 lawsuit brought by then-assistant professor Louise Lamphere against Brown University for sexual discrimination became a class-action lawsuit that resulted in Brown reviewing its hiring, promotion, and tenure practices. This and similar legal battles, says Lamphere, resulted in more women earning tenure and progressing into the administration.

Better female representation in leadership positions helps others see themselves there.

"Little girls can now imagine themselves in all kinds of roles," says Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard University's president.

Still, women face roadblocks. As in many other industries, gender stereotypes, male-dominated networking, personal doubt, and family responsibilities hamper women's upward mobility.

Many may decide not to pursue a position as president because they do not see significant redeeming qualities about the demanding job. Female provosts especially may choose not to follow that path.

Karen Haynes, president of California State University at San Marcos, frequently speaks with women leadership groups to explain how she maintains her work-life balance.

"I never wanted to be president," says Haynes. Only when asked to fill in as the interim leader at University of Houston at Victoria in 1995 did she change her mind.

Best practices for faculty diversity

As current presidents continue to age, a wave of retirements seems to be on the horizon. Three out of every five presidents are above 60, according to ACE. As this majority male cohort exits the workforce, women—as well as minorities—may fill their empty positions.

"Creating urgency is a big deal," says Susan Madsen, a Utah Valley University professor of management, adding, "If the conversation dies down, we can't think change will still happen. It most likely won't" (June, Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/16; Anderson, Washington Post, 3/26/14).

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