Women are majority of higher ed students, minority of trustees

Just 30% of private and 28% of public institutions' board members are female

Despite making up a majority of students at colleges and universities, women are underrepresented on institutions' boards of trustees, Susan Snyder reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Nationally, women make up about 57% of higher education's student body, according to the Washington Post, but they fill just 30% of trustee seats at private universities and only 28% at public ones, according to the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

The issue partially stems from the fact that institutions are looking to connect with wealthy donors, and white men hold much of the nation's wealth, says Michael Poliakoff, VP for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

Others point to the fact that fewer women than men apply for such positions, which many also cite as a factor in the lack of female university presidents.

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

But others say that is no excuse. "People are not looking hard enough," says Jane Scaccetti, one of three women on Temple University's 35-seat board. "A big part of the problem here is that people don't realize they have a problem," she says.

Increasing the number of women on boards means different questions will be asked and new collaborative efforts initiated, says Vicki Kramer, president of the Thirty Percent Coalition, a national group working to increase rates of female trustees.

"When we're too alike in background and perspective, our collective judgment feels right and rational, when it may actually be limited and flat-out wrong," says Barbara Doran, one of six women on Pennsylvania State University's (Penn State) 32-member board.

A York University study that examined Norwegian corporate directors found introducing at least three women to organizations' boards allowed for a variety of perspectives, experiences, and angles. Further, the study also found that female leaders were more likely than male leaders "to probe deeply into the issues at hand" by asking more questions, which enhanced decision-making.

"If it doesn't make sense, they are willing to say, 'I don't understand this,'" says Kramer, adding, "And often, it's because it doesn't make sense."

Additionally, a 2010 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that adding women to groups increases social sensitivity—such as being able to read nonverbal cues—which correlates with a higher collective intelligence of the team. In situations that require collaboration, groups with better social sensitivity perform better overall.

Study: More women translates to smarter groups

Some boards are making efforts to diversify the seats over which they have control.

Temple's board chair Patrick O'Connor admits "we have to do better" and that previously, they had not made enough of an effort to find female candidates. He says a woman will fill the board's currently empty seat, which was vacated by Bill Cosby following sexual assault allegations against him.

And when Penn State's board expands by six positions in July, the trustees will select three of those new members and hope to increase racial and gender diversity, says Keith Masser, the chair.

Minority members compose just 12.5% of private and 23.1% of public boards, according to the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (Snyder, Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/22).

The takeaway: Women make up a majority of higher education students, but just about 30% of college and university trustees .

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