Women Presidents: Now 26.4% but Still Underrepresented

What difference does it make to have a woman as college or university president? It opens doors to women all up and down the ladder. It’s not that they promote women preferentially, but that they’re less likely to accept stereotypes that equate leaders

The American College President, 2012The American College President, 2012

What difference does it make to have a woman as college or university president? It opens doors to women all up and down the ladder. It’s not that they promote women preferentially, but that they’re less likely to accept stereotypes that equate leadership traits with male socialization.

More importantly, their visibility as top leaders helps to break down other people’s stereotypes. As boards, committees and regents get used to seeing women at the helm, they’re less likely to put a woman in the double bind of being labeled either aggressive or meek. They’ll be less likely to assume that she can’t be professionally serious if she ever married or had children.

So it’s modestly good news that the new American Council on Education (ACE) survey of American college presidents found an increase in the presence of women. Based on survey data collected in 2011, this is the seventh ACE has conducted since 1986. The sixth was in 2006 and is the basis for comparisons suggesting current trends.

Women rose from 23.0% of presidents in 2006 to 26.4% in 2011, increasing their representation by nearly 15%. The figure has risen steadily since ACE began its survey, with the biggest increase in the 1990s. Only 9.5% of presidents in 1986, women more than doubled in representation to 19.3% in 1998. If that rate of increase had persisted, women would now be approaching half of all college presidents instead of barely over a quarter.

These numbers mask big differences by type of school:

Women Presidents by School Type
  2006 2011
Doctoral 13.8% 22.3%
Master’s 21.5% 22/8%
Bachelor’s 23.2% 22.9%
Associate 28.8% 33.0%
Special focus 16.6% 20.5%
Public (all levels) 26.6% 29.4%
Private (all levels) 18.7% 21.9%

Universities granting doctorates saw the most dramatic increase over the past five years and also since 1986, when women headed only 3.8% of them. However, they still lag all other groups except “special focus” schools in representation of women.

At the other extreme we find associate colleges, a third of which are now led by women. Women did better generally at public than private institutions, but their share of presidencies at public four-year schools fell significantly in the last five years, from 34% to 28%.

Pathways to the presidency

Women’s career paths to president are distinctly different from men’s. They’re more likely than male presidents to hold a doctorate, mostly in education.

Women presidents have spent more years than the men in the classroom or lab. Three-fourths have experience as faculty members, compared to twothirds of men.

Overall trends in presidential selection have gender implications. For example, nearly one-fifth of the presidents moved into their current position from another presidency and over a third from provost or chief academic officer (CAO). Both figures are higher than in 2006.

Slightly more than one in ten came from outside higher education; this happened mostly at private colleges and universities. Private sector schools were also most likely to hire higher education executives other than CAOs.

What does all this mean for women? The report notes that “institutions are increasingly selecting leaders with a great deal of senior executive experience in higher education. This approach could limit opportunities for younger leaders, women, and people of color.”

While a smaller pool of women presidents to draw from makes women less likely to have previous experience as a president, they were more likely than men to have been tapped from the ranks of senior academic executives.

Presidents’ Previous Position by Gender
Previous position Women Men
President/CEO 16.0% 20.8%
CAO/Provost 51.9% 42.1%
Other campus senior official 10.1% 12.5%
Outside higher education 8.5% 12.4%

Bottom line: Women presidents in higher education got there by a traditional career path. They established themselves as scholars, taught and/or guided students in research and rose through the ranks to the top academic position.

While the majority of men follow a similar path, there are more exceptions among the men. They’re more likely to come from outside higher education (politics, the military, business) or from a non-academic position on campus. Perhaps search committees are willing to take more risks with a man.

Perhaps they look at women through a higher resolution microscope to prove their qualifications. Perhaps women’s greater tendency to take time out for family or adapt to a partner’s career needs to be offset by greater rigor in establishing impeccable credentials.

The axiom is that women are hired based on what they’ve done, while men are hired based on their “potential,” a sexist plot based on stereotypes.

The ACE data don’t tell; nor do they tell whether traditional or non-traditional career paths predict a successful presidency. Meanwhile, it looks like women who want to be presidents would be well advised to establish their academic bona fides as professors, chairs, deans and provosts.

Fewer presidents of color

Having African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans or American Indians in visible top leadership is another way to break down stereotypes and open doors to diversity. Unfortunately their percentages among recent hires are down. This holds in every group except Asian Americans (less than 2% of all presidents) and whites.

Women are now 38.7% of Hispanic presidents and 34.0% of African American presidents, both up from five years ago. That’s way above their share among white presidents. Only among Asian Americans do women fare worse. Could ethnic stereotypes for that group compound stereotypes of women as too mild-mannered for leadership?

Presidents’ Gender and Race
Race/ethnicity Women Men
African American 34.0% 66.0%
Hispanic 38.7% 61.3%
Asian American 20.0% 80.0%
Other or multiple race 53.8% 46.2%
White 25.1% 74.9%


But hiring women of color is on the wane, along with all presidential hiring of minorities. Women of color are 17.0% of all sitting women presidents but only 10.7% of those recently hired.

Racial and ethnic minorities are diminishing as a share of all presidents, from 13.6% in 2006 to 12.6% in 2011. Most are African American or Hispanic, with much smaller numbers from other groups. Among schools that aren’t specifically or historically targeted to a minority group, they lead only 9%, the same as five years earlier.

African Americans are most likely to be presidents at four-year colleges and master’s universities. Hispanics hold the largest share of presidencies at schools granting associate degrees. More public than private colleges and universities are led by presidents of color. Career paths differ by ethnicity. For instance, Hispanic and African Americans are much more likely than whites to have been chief student affairs officer (CSAO) immediately before becoming a president.

President’s Career Paths by Gender and Race
  Hispanic Black White
Share of presidencies 3.8% 5.9% 86.4%
Women 38.7% 34.0% 25.1%
Earned doctorate 74.2% 85.6% 76.3%
President/CEO 16.4% 17.2% 19.7%
Provost/CAO 44.3% 48.4% 44.6%
Chief student affairs 13.1% 6.5% 3.9%
Promoted within same college/university 42.6% 27.8% 28.6%
Always at same institution 24.0% 11.0% 17.0%

Bottom line for Latinas: Your leadership is concentrated in two-year community and technical colleges. That may account for the other differences in career paths, especially the lesser need for an earned doctorate and the greater likelihood of moving up to president within the college where you already work. If you’re in a community college and want to work your way up, go for it! Anywhere else, still go for it, but be sure you get your doctorate and be prepared to relocate on your way up.

Bottom line for African Americans: African American presidents stand out for the proportion with earned doctorates and the proportion whose previous job was provost. Like women in general, you need to prove your qualifications in all the traditional ways. Women are more than half of faculty and senior administrative staff, and one-fifth of them are women of color. Taking this as the pool from which potential presidents are drawn, women of color are sorely underrepresented in higher education top leadership.

Can a president have a life?

Marriage and children aren’t the only way to have a life, but they also divide presidents sharply by gender:

President’s Marital Status by Gender
  Women Men
Currently married 71.6% 90.1%
Divorced 12.0% 3.2%
Never married/religious 4.9% 3.0%
Never married/other 5.6% 1.1%
Separated 0.3% 0.6%
Widowed 3.6% 1.0%
Domestic partner 3.6% 1.0%

Even apart from those in religious orders that forbid marriage, women presidents are far less likely than men to be married. But the share of women who are married has increased since 2006, from 63% to 72%, and the share that are divorced, widowed or separated has dropped from 19% five years ago to 16% now.

As in the past, women presidents are less likely than men to have children; 72% of women presidents have children compared with 90% of men. Given their age and career stage, most presidents’ children likely are adults living on their own. Their decisions about having children probably say less about the presidential lifestyle than the demands of a career path than can lead to the presidency.

It’s ironic that although the women are less likely than the men to marry and have children, they are more likely to have taken time out from their careers or worked part time to make time for family care; 10% of the women and just 3% of the men reported having done so. And 21.0% of the women but just 9.5% of the men had changed their career progress to accommodate the career of a partner.

Looking forward

Nearly 60% of presidents are 61 or older, up significantly from 2006. If the percentage of women among new hires continues to rise—in this survey they’re nearly a third of all new hires, compared to just over a fourth overall— the aging presidency should mean retirements that will create increasing opportunities for women.

Schools that use a search consultant are more likely to get a balanced pool where women candidates can shine. Doctoral universities are most likely to use a search consultant; special focus schools are least likely. Far more schools are using search consultants now than when the survey began, a trend that bodes well for diversity.

Search consultants can also clarify key details of the job. More than one-fifth of the presidents surveyed said they didn’t clearly understand their partner’s role when they took the job.

“If the proportion of women who serve as senior administrators and full-time faculty provide a standard for equity, then women, as presidents, remain underrepresented,” ACE concludes. Women make up 57% of faculty and senior administrative staff, but less than half that percentage of presidents.

“While it may appear that women in senior and faculty positions are slowly closing the gender gap, the potential pool from which many women presidents emerge still indicates that more leadership development, mentoring, and networking are needed to increase the representation of women presidents, especially for women of color.” Deliberate effort can change that equation.

The American College President 2012 at

Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2012, May). Women Presidents: Now 26.4% but Still Underrepresented. Women in Higher Education, 21(5), 1-3.

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