What progress? Women still far behind men in elite university power positions

New report shows the incredible disparities not just in president positions but also among deans and provosts.
By: | January 24, 2022
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It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see just how wide the gaps are between women and men in power positions in higher education. They are, and have been, easily recognizable.

Just 22% of Research I institutions have women leading as presidents, and only 26% of their boards have women in chair positions. The division among academic deans and provosts is an alarming 20% or more. Those data come from a national report from the Women’s Power Gap Initiative at the Eos Foundation and the American Association of University Women (AAUW) that highlighted the pervasive differences at 131 of the top universities.

“It’s alarming to see that women are still so vastly underrepresented at the top levels of academic leadership,” said Gloria Blackwell, AAUW CEO. “Historically, universities have been catalysts for social and economic progress in America and AAUW has supported pathways for women in academia for over a century. It’s extremely disappointing that most institutions are still failing to give women—especially women of color—equal opportunities to rise in their careers. We need immediate action to eliminate the barriers against women and people of color whose perspectives, brilliance, and leadership we need to move us all forward.”

Women might be the dominant gender on campuses across the U.S.—they have been since the 1970s—but when it comes to earning some of the most significant roles, those by and large still go to men. They haven’t even been able to get past 39% and 38%, respectively, in provost and dean positions, let alone get to the 50% threshold.

“It’s time for new approaches. Let’s stop trying to fix the women and instead fix the system. The lack of women presidents is not a pipeline issue—women serve as nearly 40% of all provosts. What we are seeing is systemic bias,” said Andrea Silbert, President of Eos. “Change must start with governing boards—only 38% of universities were willing to share board diversity data. If boards don’t provide transparency, what message does that send?”

The AAUW and Eos noted in their report that of those that did, only 8% of boards have gender equity. One of the most significant findings was just how few women of color are in power positions nationwide at these institutions. There were two Asian, two Black and two Hispanic presidents among all of them. Meanwhile, Black male presidents have doubled in less than two years while women of color still lag.

“I’ve experienced firsthand gender bias and would have never ascended to university president had it not been for the support of two women board members who supported my leadership,” said Juliet Garcia, former president of The University of Texas at Brownsville and first Latina to serve as president of a college or university in the U.S. “The UT system once required reporting on race and gender among leadership positions; however, once the path-breaking women were replaced on the board, the disclosure structure was eliminated.”

Speaking of states, it might be surprising to learn that of the eight Massachusetts R1 universities, only three have ever installed women as presidents. None currently occupy those positions. Meanwhile, California has been far more progressive, with 8 of 11 having women in that leadership post. Six institutions have had at least three women presidents—CUNY graduate school, the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of New Hampshire, the University of Iowa and the University of California-Santa Cruz. But 60 institutions have never had a woman as president.