Reform Needed to Foster Equality and Diversity in Higher Ed Leadership

March 30, 2011

As I shuffled into the steeply seated lecture hall on Thursday night to attend the fourth annual Forum on Women in Leadership, I noticed the diverse audience that had arrived to attend the event. I was pleased to see that men and women of varying ages and ethnicities were present to hear current women college and university presidents discuss their experiences in academic leadership.

Forum speakers referenced the recent report Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being and highlighted statistics that showed how women’s gains in education have outpaced men’s in the past 40 years. The report also revealed that “higher percentages of women than men age 25–34 have earned a college degree,” “more women than men have received a graduate education,” and “women earn the majority of conferred degrees overall but earn fewer degrees than men in science and technology.”

These findings intrigued me — how it is that women are outpacing men in attaining degrees yet not catching up to men in leadership positions in higher education and other professional fields? Further statistics revealed that only 23 percent of college presidents are women.

A panel of women presidents from Vassar College, Wellesley College, Kenyon College, and the University of Virginia offered honest, sound advice about what it takes to become a college or university president. Part of their discussion was the theme of disparity in leadership and how today’s college presidents do not accurately reflect the diversity of the student bodies whom they serve. S. Georgia Nugent, president of Kenyon College, warned participants to beware of the “starry imperium” — that because the presidents of Brown, Princeton, Harvard, and Wellesley are women, it gives a false sense of how far we’ve come in professional advancement and equity for women in high-level leadership positions.

One audience member brought up the connection between women college and university presidents and the number of women in student government. She asked, “Given the lack of college women’s involvement in high-level student leadership positions … what are you doing to address this at your schools?”

Fortunately, at the schools these women oversee, many college women students are involved in high-level leadership positions. Unfortunately, the panelists did not address that this is often not the case at many other schools. Perhaps the panelists had not seen this recent Washington Post article, this one from the Minnesota Daily, or this report from Princeton, which notes that “despite being less likely than men to stand as candidates for a presidency or other more visible posts, undergraduate women do a large proportion of the important work in the organizations to which they belong.” Perhaps the panelists had also not heard of the need for programs like Elect Her–Campus Women Win, which teaches college women how to campaign for and win student government elections.

These recent articles and the discussion at the forum show that much work needs to be done to foster equality in academic leadership positions. We all need to do more to encourage today’s college women to become more involved in visible, high-level leadership positions and reform campus cultures so that women students are not only comfortable in these positions, but also that serving in these positions is something they come to expect of themselves .

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