Examining Female Leadership in Higher Education

StudentBridge Staff |Mar 12, 2019

Leadership roles in higher education will never lack in challenges that serve as barriers to success. Overcoming these barriers requires much sacrifice and hard work in personal and professional capacities for both men and women.

However, while women have received over 50% of the number of Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees awarded in the last three decades, as well as over 50% of all doctoral degrees in the last decade, women are still underrepresented in leadership and faculty roles in higher education. As of 2016, women made up only around 30% of the serving population for both governing boards and presidencies for private and public institutions.

Of the women who rise to leadership positions such as presidents and chief academic officers, 10% or more are less likely to have children or be married in comparison to their male counterparts and over 30% have had to make major career adjustments for their partners and dependents. This is not to say that there has not been progress over time, but there is still much work to be done.

If over half of the college student population is female, shouldn’t leadership more closely represent the population? There are several programs geared towards just that. While students are taught the skills necessary to become professionals in their respective fields, organizations like the American Council on Education (ACE) and the Higher Education Resource Services (HERS) actively work to create opportunities for women to learn and grow into leadership roles in higher education.

ACE has been around for over 100 years and in those years, they have advocated for women's rights and representation in higher education. Programs like the Commission on the Education of Women (CEW) worked hard to drastically increase opportunities for women in higher education from 1953 to 1962. The aim of the program was to offer women access to a wider variety of courses and degrees which would help them penetrate career fields that mostly consisted of men. During the Civil Rights Era, ACE created the Office of Women in Higher Education (OWHE), which helped campuses figure out Title IX legislation and how to comply with the new standards against discrimination based on gender in higher education.

ACE has continued to respond with action at each major historical movement, with greater emphasis on female leadership in higher education. Currently, the ACE Women’s Network continues its programs for the advancement of women in higher education leadership. Their current goals include increasing female leadership to 50% at the senior, decision and policy making levels by 2030.

HERS works to create a vast and diverse network of female professionals in higher education. One great aspect of HERS is that their programs are inclusive of anyone who identifies as a woman. They work to build up women leaders at every stage of their careers, they research gender equity to create workable plans to embolden and promote the underrepresented and marginalized population, and they offer a network of like-minded individuals with a passion for professional and personal growth.

There has been much progress in the last century in diversifying the candidates for leadership roles in higher education - from almost no female leadership to the roughly 30% that exist today. There is still much work to be done to create a greater balance in representation, but we commend those organizations that purposefully place emphasis on this initiative.

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