Julieta García credits her history-making turn as the first Latina to serve as a college president in the United States to the supportive women who believed in her leadership. But in the upper ranks of academia, García rarely encountered other women, particularly women of color, who held positions of power.
“I would complain about being the only woman on a board that I was sitting on or being the only Latina on a board and how that always happened to me,” García said.
Thirty-six years after García became president of Texas Southmost College, a role she held until 1991, when she left to lead the University of Texas at Brownsville, women leaders remain underrepresented in higher education. Overall, they make up just 22 percent of the presidents at elite research universities, and the numbers are even lower for women of color, who make up less than 5 percent of leaders at these institutions, according to a new study by the Women’s Power Gap Initiative at the Eos Foundation in partnership with the American Association of University Women.
At the nation’s 130 elite research universities, the study found, a gender gap exists at all levels — from presidents to tenured faculty positions. The disparity in leadership roles is even more pronounced because women have outnumbered men as students on college campuses since the 1970s and now earn the majority of doctorates.
“It used to be what they call a pipeline issue, where they just didn’t have enough women,” said García. The institutions she has led are not considered elite research universities, but she’s an advocate for more gender equity at these top schools, joining a panel last week with the organizations that commissioned the study.
“That’s not the case anymore,” García said of talent pipeline issues. “It was a good excuse at first. I think we all believed it, and it was an actual reality. But now what is so disturbing about this is that in spite of the fact that the pipeline is now much more healthy, in terms of diverse applicants, women with experience are still not getting promoted.”
Although women make up under a quarter of presidents at elite research universities, they constitute nearly 40 percent of all provosts, or senior administrators at higher education institutions. This finding underscores that there is no shortage of women capable of serving in a university’s top job — usually called president or chancellor — but that systemic bias has prevented them from doing so, Eos’s president, Andrea Silbert, told The 19th. Eos is a private philanthropic organization that focuses on gender equity and diversity in leadership.
“What we’ve demonstrated is that there’s still a concrete ceiling,” Silbert said. The gender divide “just feels heavier than glass.”
Silbert said progress toward gender equity has been too slow. ”We have to use new tactics, but how do you break concrete? Well, you’re not going to break concrete by training women to lead better to lead like men. You’re going to break it by questioning your own biases about what a leader looks like,” she said.
Women usually take a traditional career path to the top, first serving as provosts and deans and then as presidents, Silbert said. But men from professions outside academia, such as politics, business or the military, have become university heads.
Even within the confines of the academy, “men could skip a step,” Silbert said. “They could go from being the head of research and then end up being a university president, and we didn’t see that same opportunity for women.”
The gender gap in education can be found among all racial groups. After the 2020 police murder of George Floyd sparked a national discussion about race relations and prompted institutions and corporations to commit to diversity, equity and inclusion, universities responded by extending job offers to Black men but often excluding Black women from these efforts. Over the past 18 months, the number of Black men presidents at elite research universities more than doubled, from four to nine, but Black women did not enjoy similar gains, the study found.
“There are just so many incredibly qualified women of color who are just completely out of the picture,” said Gloria Blackwell, CEO of the American Association of University Women. “As an AAUW leader, I know because we have been funding women of color for 140 years and creating these pathways and building up the pipeline in academia. I’m surrounded by all of these amazingly talented women of color who have risen in the ranks, and it’s just startling to me that the numbers are so low.”
Improving the representation of women in leadership roles at universities will require a number of interventions, including identifying institutions that have successfully brought women on board as leaders, the study authors say. California universities, for example, have done particularly well recruiting and hiring women presidents. Women now lead three of the state’s 11 elite research universities, and eight of these institutions have had at least one woman president previously.
Silbert attributes this to California’s efforts to make changes in the business world, including through 2018’s “Women on Boards” bill, which required corporations headquartered in the state to have at least one woman director on their boards by the end of 2019.
Across the country in Massachusetts, however, none of the eight elite research universities in the state currently has a woman president, and only three have ever had a woman president. The absence of a single woman president at an elite research university in the Bay State now signals that many institutions take a “one-and-done” approach to hiring women leaders, the study states. In other words, they don’t continue to recruit women presidents after doing so once.
To ensure that women keep serving as university presidents, appointing women to governing boards is a must, the study authors say. Governing boards, or boards of directors at universities, make key decisions about how these institutions operate, though the powers they have and the size of these boards vary by state and by institution. In some cases, state governors appoint the members of these boards.
Only 38 percent of elite research universities contacted for the gender equity report shared their board diversity data. From the data the study authors could obtain, they found that only 26 percent of governing board chairs are women. Individuals often become governing board members because of their political connections or financial assets and not because they reflect the diversity of the students they represent, Silbert said. Until governing board members include more women, they are unlikely to prioritize promoting women to positions of power at universities, she said.
Silbert said the Department of Education should start collecting this data.
“We think that these research universities that get most of their money from the federal government should be required to share this data in order to get their research dollars,” Silbert said.
Alumni, she added, can also hold universities accountable, refusing to donate to higher education institutions that don’t disclose governing board demographics or appoint women to leadership roles. Current students can play a role, too.
“I think it’s really important that we empower the women on campuses with information that can help them better understand who’s making these decisions, so that they are able to become an advocate for themselves,” Blackwell said.