On July 1, Elizabeth Garrett assumed the presidency of Cornell University.
With this, half of the eight-member Ivy League schools now have female presidents. Garrett joins an illustrious group: Christina Paxson (Brown University), Drew Faust (Harvard University) and Amy Gutmann (University of Pennsylvania).
But what about colleges and universities outside the Ivy League?
Women in academia
I am enormously proud to have been appointed recently as chancellor of University of Wisconsin Colleges and University of Wisconsin-Extension. Although I am the first woman to hold this position, I am not the only woman in a top job in our system.
Four other campuses now have women leaders, including our flagship research university, University of Wisconsin Madison. In addition, a woman was recently elected as president of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents (the governing body that oversees the UW system).
It’s clear that there is a commitment to gender equity at Wisconsin. But national data show a different picture.
First, let’s look at how women have come to outnumber men on college campuses. The majority of degree earners in our colleges and universities are women. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women began eclipsing men in terms of degree attainment beginning in 2000. By 2014, 37% of women between 25 and 29 years had earned a bachelor’s degree, compared to men at 31%.
Based on this data, it might not be unreasonable to expect that now or in the near future, 50% of all colleges and university leaders would be women.
However, the latest figures indicate that only 26% of college presidents are women. How slowly it is changing becomes evident when we see that back in 2006, this number was at 23%.
Why women don’t make it
So why do women get left behind when it comes to leadership roles?
Here is where we need to see how college and university presidents are selected.
There is, as research shows, a tendency to play it safe and hire someone who fits the existing norm (ie, men). As an American Council on Education study put it:
In 1986, the first year of ACE’s college president study, the demographic profile of the typical campus leader was a white male in his 50s. He was married with children, Protestant, held a doctorate in education, and had served in his current position for six years. Twenty-five years later, with few exceptions, the profile has not changed.
The fact that there is often a dearth of women on search committees does not help.
In addition, as research shows, there is often a higher bar set for women seeking leadership roles in terms of qualifications and prior experience. This applies not just to the higher education sector but to other fields as well.
No doubt, they are all strong leaders. But they did not “check all the usual boxes” we usually expect in terms of broad higher education experience. Unlike women presidents, none of them had a significant amount academic leadership experience.
Now take a quick look at the stellar curriculum vitae of the female Ivy League leaders: We see multiple books (including national award winners), distinguished and endowed professorships, service as founding deans and directors of major departments and centers, appointments to chair presidential commissions, and numerous awards and honors.
Lack of ambition or confidence?
The trouble may not lie with the hiring process alone. Often, women do not even consider applying for such jobs.
Research shows that women may hold themselves back if they feel they do not have the required experience or because they fear failure.
Men, on the other hand, are more willing to throw their hats in the ring and compete for a higher-level position, even if they do not have all of the stated qualifications.
Much of this comes from women’s tendency to play down their accomplishments.
A recent study of high-ranking Israeli women leaders found that women were reluctant “to take credit for their accomplishments. They attributed them to circumstances or luck.”
Perhaps surprisingly, female Ivy League presidents are no different. For instance, at a gathering in 2007, the Ivy League’s female presidents played down their accomplishments saying “they wound up at the head of four of the world’s leading universities almost by accident.”
Balancing a demanding job and parenting responsibilities also play a role in women’s willingness to seek major leadership roles.
This “childrearing penalty” may be especially strong in higher ed. Most women presidents come from faculty ranks. Women with children have a disadvantage in academic career progression compared to men with children. Gender bias may play a role as well.
There is another crucial fact here that we cannot ignore: the role of a powerful sponsor.
Having a powerful sponsor probably paves a smoother path to the top. It is hardly a coincidence that three former and current Ivy League women leaders, Shirley Tilghman (former president of Princeton), Ruth Simmons (former president of Brown) and Amy Gutmann also had something else in common: they were all supported by former Princeton president Harold Shapiro.
Who wants to be the last?
Culture and attitude are critical in driving change. And competition is part of the Ivy League culture.
As Ruth Simmons, the first black president of an Ivy League institution, pointed out in a 2007 forum,
When it starts to become the issue of being the last Ivy League school to have a woman president – who wants to do that? This is a league and this is a league based on competition.
As we strive for greater gender equity in college and university leadership, we need more institutions to think of women leaders as a competitive advantage.
Those of us who already hold these positions need to also be leaders in raising awareness and becoming mentors and sponsors. Perhaps more importantly, we need to encourage other women to see themselves as qualified to apply for these leadership positions.
If the Ivy League can do it, if Oxford University can do it, why not the rest of us? Indeed, who wants to be the last institution to appoint a woman as president?
Cathy Sandeen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.