women in higher education

7 challenges women STILL face in higher ed-and how to fix them


Low numbers of women in higher education present challenges the industry must solve.

While more than half of all college students are women, less than one-third of all full-time professors are women–and the troubling gaps in academia are proving difficult to close.

But the low representation of women in higher education isn’t indicative of their qualifications to be higher-ed leaders, according to Higher Ed Spotlight: Pipelines, Pathways, and Institutional Leadership: An Update on the Status of Women in Higher Education.

The pipeline myth, or the idea that there are too few women qualified to hold leadership positions, is exactly that–a myth. While there may be qualified women, are they holding higher-ed leadership positions at a stead rate?

The report offers an update on women in higher education and sheds some light on the positions and degrees they hold, salary gaps, and more.

1. New data indicate there are more than enough qualified women in higher education who can fill available leadership positions, and women are being prepared at a greater rate than men. Women have earned more than 50 percent of all doctoral degrees since 2006, more than 50 percent of all bachelor’s degrees since 1982, more than 50 percent of all master’s degrees since 1987, and more than 50 percent of all associate degrees since 1978.

2. But despite these encouraging statistics and despite women’s availability for higher-ed leadership positions, they do not hold associate professor or full professor positions at the same rate as men.

3. The higher the academic rank, the fewer women present. Women of color often outnumber men of color in lower-ranking faculty positions, but men of color hold full professor positions more often than women of color.

4. Perhaps one of the biggest indicators is the pay gap between men and women who hold the same faculty rank. During the 2015-2016 academic year, male faculty members made an average of $89,190, and female faculty members made an average of $73,782. Men are more likely than women to earn a higher salary and to hold a tenure track position.

5. The number of women presidents has increased since 1986, but as of 2016, women only hold 30 percent of presidencies across all higher-ed institutions. However, women presidents are more likely to have a PhD or EdD than their male peers.

6. Women presidents are more likely to have served as a chief academic officer, provost or other senior executive in academic affairs. Male presidents are more likely to come from outside higher ed or have had a different senior campus executive role than women presidents.

7. The percentage of women serving in a chief academic officer position has declined from 2008 to 2013 in public doctoral degree-granting institutions.

(Next page: Areas for future action)

Benchmarking Women’s Leadership in the United States, a report published by the University of Denver’s Colorado Women’s College, suggests areas of future action to help close the leadership gap:

1. The governing board and the senior staff should annually review the institution’s commitment to diversity to evaluate how well it is working.

2. Identify, support, and advance women and women of color to become chief academic officers, provosts, and senior executives. These positions are stepping-stones to the presidency.

3. Look beyond sitting presidents in order to increase the pool of potential presidential selections. Because women are more likely to have followed a nontraditional career path, the best candidates may come from farther afield.

4. Review hiring and promotion policies to ensure they are fair and equitable and do not disproportionately encumber women. For example, if the majority of non-tenure track positions do not have equal standing in promotion, and women predominantly occupy these positions, then the university must critically evaluate its hiring process.

5. Evaluate the lack of tenure track hires and consider how promotion may be re-evaluated.

6. Insist that pools of candidates for faculty and senior leadership positions be diverse. Women cannot get hired if they are not in the pool of candidates.

7. Diversify search committees for presidential, senior leadership, and faculty positions. Often diversification on the committee helps ensure a search will be expanded to the broadest range of qualified candidates.

8. Make certain search committees have data on the status and benefits of women and women of color candidates.

9. If universities hire search firms, they should ensure the firms have a reputation for providing diverse pools of candidates.

10. Public institutions should pay particular attention to the declining number of women leaders. Among all the sectors, academia is the only one that has this trend. Typically, public organizations, entities, and offices have a better representation of women overall.

Laura Ascione