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‘The glass ceiling is a concrete ceiling’: Women, especially women of color, remain scarce in higher-ed leadership — here’s why

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By Meera Jagannathan

Women, and especially women of color, remain scarce at the highest levels of leadership for elite U.S. research universities, a new study says — and it’s not because of a “pipeline issue.”

One example: In the year and a half since America’s racial-justice protests, the number of Black men serving as university presidents at elite research universities has more than doubled from four to nine, according to the report from the Women’s Power Gap Initiative, an initiative of the Eos Foundation, a private philanthropic organization. 

But just one Black woman was hired for such a position during that period — highlighting “the need for intersectional analysis, goals, and benchmarks,” the authors wrote.

The analysis also found that women make up only one out of 10 university system presidents — and none are women of color. System presidents are 90% men and 15% men of color.

“The glass ceiling is a concrete ceiling,” the report said. “[Women’s] highest proportions are in the president’s cabinets (net of academic deans), but that is rarely a pathway position to the presidency.”

As with representational challenges in many other industries , this steep dropoff of women at the university-president level is “clearly not a pipeline issue,” the report noted, as women are well represented among academic dean and provost positions that often feed to the presidency. 

Meanwhile, solutions such as “[fixing] the women” through training programs meant to prepare them for advancement or coaching women to overcome a so-called confidence gap and adopt more stereotypically male behaviors at work tend to fall short, the authors added. Taken together, this suggests “larger systemic issues holding women back” and points to a need for cultural change within academia, they said.

The researchers looked at data as of Sept. 15, 2021 from 130 top U.S. research universities (aka R1) as defined by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.

The report also found that women of color in aggregate make up under 5% of permanent university presidents and white women make up 17%; men are more likely than women to be able to ascend to university presidencies by “nontraditional” means, such as bypassing the usual feeder positions or being “outsiders” from different sectors; and just 8% of university governing boards had achieved gender parity. 

In fact, only 38% of universities provided board diversity data at all, suggesting “a shocking lack of leadership and transparency” during a time when many stakeholders are clamoring for board accountability, the report said.

Why take stock of elite research universities’ progress toward diversity? As the authors put it, these colleges collectively educate and employ millions of people, “making them major drivers of our state and national economies,” and provide role models for leaders of the future.

“These institutions have the clout to drive change within their own bodies and to inspire action and motivate change throughout our country,” they wrote. “We chose to focus on higher education because we believe the sector could and should be the first to achieve gender parity and fair representation of people of color at the top.”

The report provides several recommendations, including governing boards making public commitments to achieve equitable representation and reporting their own diversity data; presidents working with boards to enact diversity goals and committing to rooting out bias in hiring, promotion and retention; students, alumni and donors demanding diversity goals, benchmarks and transparency; and governments at the local, state and federal level requiring more transparency from these universities. 

“These institutions have outsized power and should use it to create new models of doing business that challenge the status quo, instead of reinforcing it,” the authors wrote.

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