Respect Diversity + Inclusion

Women face ‘concrete ceiling’ in advancing in higher education

(Alexsey Emelyanov/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Story at a glance

  • An analysis of more than 100 research universities in the U.S. has found that women hold just over a fifth of leadership roles.
  • Only 8 percent of universities in the study have an equal number of men and women on their boards, and no schools have reached gender parity among tenured professors.
  • Women of color face the most hurdles, according to the report, and while the number of Black male university presidents has roughly doubled since 2020, Black women have yet to see similar gains.

Just over a fifth of leadership positions at the nation’s most elite research universities have been filled by women, according to a new report ranking more than 100 universities along gender and racial lines. Among women of color, leadership roles are virtually nonexistent.

The report, released Thursday by The Women’s Power Gap Initiative at the Eos Foundation, found women accounted for just 22 percent of university presidents and 26 percent of board chairs.                             

The gender gap is even more pronounced among women of color, who make up just 5 percent of presidents. While the number of Black male university presidents has roughly doubled since 2020, women of color have yet to see similar gains, according to the report.

Of the 130 research universities studied, only nine – or just 8 percent – have an equal number of men and women on their boards, while no schools have reached gender parity among tenured professors.


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These findings suggest that the ceiling women meet on their way to the top of the ivory tower is not made of glass, but concrete.

“I’ve experienced first-hand gender bias and would have never ascended to university president had it not been for the support of two women board members who supported my leadership,” Juliet Garcia, former president of The University of Texas at Brownsville, said in a statement.

Garcia, also the first Latina to serve as president of a college or university in the U.S., criticized college systems like the UT system, which lifted a requirement to report on race and gender among leadership positions once “path-breaking women were replaced on the board” by men.

Some research has suggested that a so-called “confidence gap” exists between men and women, where women are less self-assured than their male counterparts and exude less “executive presence” (speaking up during meetings, taking up space physically, or projecting one’s voice, for example).

But additional research has found that women are in fact not less confident than men, and most women’s lack of assertion in the workplace is not tied to a confidence deficit, but rather a desire to avoid the “backlash effect,” or the social consequences of self-promotion.

“While self-confidence is gender-neutral, the consequences of appearing self-confident are not,” Laura Guillen wrote in a 2018 article published in the Harvard Business Review, and women who project self-confidence are often seen as less likable.

The Eos Foundation report, produced jointly with the American Association of University Women, a nonprofit advancing equity for women and girls through education, found that despite women having comparable experience and desire to lead, they are often passed over for leadership roles.

“Let’s stop trying to fix the women and instead fix the system,” Andrea Silbert, president of the Eos Foundation, said in a statement. “The lack of women presidents is not a pipeline issue – women serve as nearly 40 percent of all provosts. What we are seeing is systemic bias.”

Silbert called on college and university governing boards to increase transparency regarding board diversity – data just 38 percent of universities were willing to share for the study.

“If boards don’t provide transparency, what message does that send?,” she said.

“It’s alarming to see that women are still so vastly underrepresented at the top levels of academic leadership,” Gloria Blackwell, AAUW’s chief executive, said. “It’s extremely disappointing that most institutions are still failing to give women – especially women of color – equal opportunities to rise in their careers.”


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