Gender Equity Gap in Higher Ed Leadership

Women have consistently earned the majority of advanced degrees, but men are primarily filling leadership positions in higher education.

3 minutes
By: Ankita Bhanot
featured-image

Women are often the faces of the nation’s classrooms and campuses, but remarkably the statistics indicate that their voice in decision-making starts to diminish higher up the leadership ladder. There is a significant gap in the number of women, especially women of color, who are seeking and/or attaining leadership positions at universities and colleges in the United States, indicating a need for gender equity. 

When looking specifically at leadership positions among higher education institutions in the United States, a gap exists not only in the amount of pay men and women are receiving but also in the actual opportunity (i.e., the number of jobs). Historical factors such as unequal hiring practices, biased managers and workplace harassment have all contributed to very few—or, many times, no—women sitting on the leadership and executive boards of higher education institutions.

Evolving Qualification Parameters

A report by the Eos Foundation’s Women’s Power Gap (WPG) Initiative, in partnership with the American Association of University Women (AAUW), found only 22% of 130 major universities had a woman in the top position of president, chancellor or system head. This is despite the fact that the American Enterprise Institute indicated that for every 100 men earning a doctoral degree in 2020, there were more than 113 female graduates. 

Moreover, women have outnumbered men in earning postgraduate degrees for the past 10 years, and these degrees are often prerequisites to attaining leadership positions on university boards. The gap is even wider for women of color. Approximately one in five Ph.D. earners is a woman of color, but only 5% of these universities had a woman holding the top executive position. 

As industries evolve and change, it may be that earning a doctoral degree is no longer the most obvious indication that someone will pursue a career in higher education leadership. Although completing a postgraduate degree is certainly a prerequisite at many universities to sit on leadership boards, the evolution of president and chancellor selections in the last 5 to 10 years shows that candidates have been chosen for their roles as CEOs, experiences in the political realm and general organizational and management skills.

“We don’t actively hit a certain number,” said Chancellor Mary Holz-Clause of the University of Minnesota Crookston. “We hire the individual who is most qualified and best suited for the role. People [at universities] are generally very open and looking for new individuals.”

Keys to Bridging Gender Equity Gap

There is no specific formula for the gender equity present in these universities’ staff, but Holz-Clause pointed out that all of the University of Minnesota’s search committees go through bias training and that education is provided for every search and recruitment group. 

“A lot of universities create networks for people and provide a peer mentor,” said Holz-Clause. “This leadership training ideally starts early in a person’s academic career, making them the absolute best that they can be.” 

Similarly, Stacy Merida, the assistant dean of diversity, equity and inclusion at American University’s Kogod School of Business, indicated that the leadership should create measures to ensure that the table is very large and there are many represented voices to provide proper guidance and honest perspectives.

Merida and Holz-Clause emphasized a key component that successfully supports females continuing into leadership positions at American universities: women networking and building alliances and relationships on and across their campuses. 

“More and more women are actively and effectively looking for support and promoting each other’s work,” Merida said. “Much of this work is being driven by individual networks—rather than at institutional levels.” 

Holz-Clause, whose work in the agricultural industry has since shifted to decades of leadership positions in academia, attributes her success to the “real spirit of mentorship, radical candor, and honest feedback” she’s been fortuitous enough to experience amongst colleagues in her career. 

“The most important part of the development of any leader are individuals who invest in you and provide good, honest feedback,” Holz-Clause said. 

Future Outlook

Every industry—even the occasionally archaic higher education industry—has critically examined its treatment of gender equality in the past few decades, including equity in pay, diversity and representation. 

“I don’t know if I have achieved total gender equity to the level I desire,” said Merida. “While there are wonderful attributes and incredible strides achieved, we’re not completely there as it is a journey.”

Each milestone gets us closer.

Although strides have been made at several institutions to create inclusive campuses, AAUW’s study also reported that women working full-time in the United States are paid, on average, 83% of what men earn. Further, a disparity exists between white women—who are paid 79% of what men earn—and Black and Hispanic women, who earn 63% and 55%, respectively, of what their male counterparts earn on average. The issue becomes increasingly critical because the disparity in pay has barely improved in the past two decades

“Each milestone gets us closer,” said Merida. “Most importantly in any organization, including higher education, is having the type of leadership that believes and operates authentically in this space to ensure we’re on the right path and continues to push the systems toward that just arc.”

“There is an element of time. There are more females than there ever used to be in the journey to be a chancellor or a president,” said Holz-Clause. “As a leader, we underplay and want to put to practice all of the best practices. It is important for individuals to understand where they are.”

Representation matters.

The University of Minnesota is among the top twenty universities in the United States for gender equity in higher education leadership, based on gender index scores calculated by the percentage of women who are presidents, provosts, tenured full professors, academic deans and president’s cabinet members. 

So, what work needs to be done in order to create and maintain progress? 

“Intentionally inviting a representative from every population represented on your campus/in your workplace to participate in the process ensures diversity in the issues identification and decision-making processes,” said Merida. “It’s amazing the amount of equitable goodwill and currency that will be garnered through this process. Representation matters.”

Ankita Bhanot

Ankita Bhanot

Reporter

Ankita Bhanot is a writer and journalist based out of California and New York City. She holds a B.A. in journalism and psychology from NYU, where she reported for almost a decade at publications such as TED, NBC and MSNBC, covering political news, cultural events, immigrant communities and racial discrimination issues. In her spare time, she pursues her passion for music journalism by interviewing artists and photographing shows throughout the country.


Newsletter Sign up!

Stay current in digital strategy, brand amplification, design thinking and more.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Also in Admissions

A student's admission file through a direct admissions program, which shows her major, her grades, and her intended course of study.

Can Direct Admissions Benefit Everyone?

As direct admissions programs gain traction across the U.S., admissions experts, high school counselors and students speak on their strengths.

Admissions /
By: Joshua Aelick
A laptop showing a CRM for graduate school.

CRMs: Powering Graduate Programs

Graduate admissions experts weigh in on the pros and cons of three major CRMs used by higher education institutions.

Admissions /
By: Joshua Aelick

Exodus Underscores Disdain for U.S. News Rankings

Many high-profile institutions refused to cooperate with the controversial U.S. News ranking system. But with many prospective students continuing to care, some institutions may be hedging their bets.

Admissions /
By: Chris Kudialis
A student's admission file through a direct admissions program, which shows her major, her grades, and her intended course of study.

Can Direct Admissions Benefit Everyone?

As direct admissions programs gain traction across the U.S., admissions experts, high school counselors and students speak on their strengths.

Admissions /
By: Joshua Aelick
A laptop showing a CRM for graduate school.

CRMs: Powering Graduate Programs

Graduate admissions experts weigh in on the pros and cons of three major CRMs used by higher education institutions.

Admissions /
By: Joshua Aelick
A young man with light skin and short, light hair looking at papers while taking a standardized admissions test.

Standardized Admissions Testing: An Evolving Landscape

After nearly a century of SAT dominance, test-optional, test-blind and alternative testing methods are changing the higher ed admissions process.

Admissions /
By: Aila Boyd