Strategies to Reach Gender Parity in College Presidents

“More openings coupled with fewer opportunities to rely on current presidents, should mean better chances for those women and people of color waiting in the wings–if, of course, there are more women and people of color waiting in the wings.”

Dr. Donna Burns Phillips

Strategies to Reach Gender Parity in College Presidents

The past few years have brought unprecedented changes in the visibility of powerful women in high-status leadership roles. There’s now a female president of Harvard University, a female House majority leader and a woman as a strong candidate for the United States presidency. And as we’re constantly reminded, female college students now outnumber male students.

Although the casual observer of these milestones might conclude that gender parity has come to the United States, we know better—especially in academia. While the U.S. population is 51% women, we have nowhere near that number in the upper ranks of leadership on college campuses.

Dr. Donna Burns Phillips, director of the American Council on Education’s Office of Women in Higher Education (OWHE), proposes “A 51% Solution.”

“When I see 51% of academia’s presidents, provosts, deans, department chairs, and full professors are women, that’s what will make me happy,” she said, noting that 38% of that 51% in America are women of color. “So when I see 20% of academia’s presidents, provosts, deans, department chairs, and full professors are women of color, that’s what will make me overjoyed. That’s also what will make my work, my office, my programs obsolete.”

But Phillips doesn’t worry about the OWHE becoming irrelevant—or being the victim of “over-elation”—any more than we at WIHE worry about becoming irrelevant. She summarized the status of women in the United States and in academia, and strategies for moving toward parity, in the afternoon keynote “Developing the Pipeline of Women Leaders” at the OWHE Northern California Network’s annual conference in San Francisco in March.

Societal changes

A 2007 report by the Pew Charitable Trust predicted that the number of female inmates incarcerated in the US will rise at a faster rate (16%) than that of males (12%). And a February 24th issue of the Washington Post Magazine reported that while women made up less than 1% of the armed forces serving in Vietnam (mostly nurses), today’s all-volunteer force is 15% female. Women now serve in nine of the 10 military occupational specialties, all except ground forces.

“Today’s military can’t go to war without women,” the report said. “The result: As the Army struggles to keep enough boots on the ground in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, a recent Rand Corporation study confirms that it has cut corners on its own strict policy of steering women clear of units that engage in direct ground combat.”

It’s no stretch to say that most Vietnam veterans never thought they’d see women fighting—and dying—in service for their country. “If the Marines now allow women to pilot their attack helicopters, there really does seem to be reason for the person on the street to conclude that the glass ceiling has developed holes bigger than those in the ozone layer and anyone who wants to rise above can,” said Phillips.

But while those women are allowed to engage in combat, how many hold top leadership positions? And how many are supported so that they are able to thrive in the elite military academies? “I daresay every woman in this room knows it just isn’t that simple, whether you’re in the army or in academia,” Phillips continued.

An incredible opportunity

On the horizon is an incredible opportunity for moving women into key positions in academia. Half of the current sitting college presidents and chancellors in America are over the age of 60, so their imminent retirement will bring a wave of openings across the country. While many searches focus on luring sitting college presidents, that won’t be as convenient an option as in the past.

The sheer number of openings and the limited number of available sitting presidents means search committees will have to get creative to fill the jobs. “Presidential hiring bodies are going to find it difficult to stick with traditional selection methods and pools,” said Phillips. “More openings, coupled with fewer opportunities to rely on current presidents, should mean better chances for those women and people of color waiting in the wings—if, of course, there are more women and people of color waiting in the wings.”

We’re at a critical juncture, and our ability to capitalize on the unprecedented turnover will depend on who we have available to step up and step in, she said. It all comes down to preparing the pipeline.

From where do presidents come?

The 2006 survey that led to ACE’s 2007 edition of The American College President has some answers. It found that, at the time, 21.1% of presidents were in at least a second presidency. Most presidents, however, had previously served as chief academic officer or in another senior academic officer position before moving to provost and then presi-dent (for a total of 43.8%).

The survey found that women led 23% of the U.S.’s regionally accredited institutions. That’s an increase of 13.5% over 20 years—or just 0.7% per year. Women presidents were more likely than men presidents to be racially diverse in every category.


Race of College Presidents by Gender (2006)

  Female Male
Caucasian 81.1% 88.0%
African American 8.1 5.3
Hispanic 6.7 3.8
American Indian 1.5 0.5
Asian American 1.0 0.9
Other 1.7 1.5

Over the past 20 years, Philips noted the percentage of female Caucasian presidents has dropped by 8.3%, but that of male Caucasian presidents has decreased by only 2.4%.

As a group, women of color have advanced among women slightly faster than men of color among men. Among recently hired presidents, 11.7% were African-American females. The percentage of Caucasian males increased, while Caucasian females decreased. But females of color are still outnumbered by males of color—by a margin of almost 2½ to 1.

What are the barriers?

The ACE study also reported how presidents divide their time and their biggest challenges. At public schools, presidents spent the most time on budgeting and financial management, while community relations and fundraising were tied for second. Their greatest challenges were legislators, faculty and governing boards.

At private schools, fundraising consumed most of the presidents’ time, with budgeting/financial management and strategic planning next. Their greatest obstacles were faculty, donors and the governing board.

“So no matter what or whom you look like, if you’re aiming for a presidency you had better know everything there is to know about money—how to get it, how to spend it, and how to save it,” said Phillips. “You had also better be extremely adept at working with people who often know little or nothing about how to run a university, but who are in the position of making decisions about that enterprise that have enormous consequences.”

But sometimes, she said, women are pulled into leadership positions before they have the credentials that the public feels they need. “You have to have credentials that will give you credibility with the faculty as you seek to unite and in-spire them,” she said. “To this, I would personally add an unfailing sense of humor, a wide network of support, and humidity-proof hair.”

Working on the pipeline

The most recent pipeline survey found that women comprise about 45% of current senior academic administrators, including 7% women of color. Of CAOs, 38% are women, but only 3% are women of color.

While there is a substantial pool of women provosts (mostly Caucasian), from which a new president could emerge, a study by Dr. Diane Dean at Northern Illinois University indicated that many women don’t want to be president. While more than two-thirds of the female provosts she surveyed believed that they were qualified for a presidency, many weren’t interested. Reasons why weren’t specified, but it’s not hard to speculate.

To be sustainable and effective, efforts to reach parity must include all stages of the pipeline, said Phillips. It can’t begin or end at the VP or even dean level. It needs to reach faculty and even doctoral students. The transition from graduate school into academia is the source of a big pipeline leak because there is more money in the workforce, often in the STEM fields.

Phillips suggests that schools hold events for female doctoral students to plant the seed for future leadership positions. Mentoring is also a key component to keeping women in academia and steering them to a leadership track. “A few years and a few mentors can make all the difference in a woman’s career,” she said. Programs need to take an active role in finding women to mentor, she said, because many women won’t ask people to mentor them.

ACE’s and the OWHE’s new Spectrum Initiative is partnering with other higher education groups to devise creative solutions to improve the pipeline. One strategy is to target and educate “key gatekeepers” to the presidency: boards of trustees (and those in charge of electing/appointing them), search firms and search committees. Until these influential—and sometimes clueless—groups really understand and appreciate the benefits of true diversity among American academic presidents, progress on campus will continue to be slow.

“It’s a pipeline initiative aimed at the top,” said Phillips. “Ordinarily I don’t relish top-down models, but I recognize that one reason the pipeline isn’t adequately diverse—doesn’t have a proportional number of women and people of color—is that there has to be some small level of expectation of success to motivate and sustain while doing all that preparatory work.”

That includes finding ways to diversify the hiring boards themselves. The goal is to make them realize that the same isn’t always better—and sometimes it’s not even good enough.

What can you do to help?

Phillips suggests strategies for women on campus.

Nominate people as regents or advisory committee members. Use your networks to access people who have political influence in all forms.

Lobby your president to sponsor more women to participate in off-campus leadership development programs, such as HERS, OWHE’s forums and ACE’s fellows program. Find a group on campus, such as your Committee on the Status of Women, to track the numbers, profiles, costs and types of programs that people are sponsored for, to ensure that women and people of color are getting a fair share of support. “Women tend to be less likely to spend their own money on professional development when organizational funds aren’t available,” said Phillips. The OWHE is creating the Women’s Legacy Fund, an endowment to send women to leadership events when money isn’t available.

Lobby your president to provide leadership training that’s serious, structured and campus-based. While monthly department chair meetings might count, they’re usually too basic. One good model is the University of Kentucky’s Circles of Power program. The programs tend to be at least as beneficial and cost-effective as external programs.

Hold events for doctoral students, to pique their interest in higher education and educational leadership.

Contribute to efforts to support other women. “If we don’t support each other, we can’t insist on or even ethically ask for the support of others,” said Phillips. No matter where you are in your career, the status of women around you affects you, she explained.

Paraphrasing President John F. Kennedy, she said, “You can ask what the pipeline can do for you; you should ask what you can do for the pipeline.” But “in the end, remember that you are the pipeline.”

Donna Burns Phillips at

written by Elizabeth Leigh Farrington

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