Women in Academia

A couple of weeks ago, I flipped through the mail and unceremoniously tore open an envelope stamped Do Not Bend. I slipped the diploma out and gazed at it, proof that my graduation from Pacific University’s MFA Program in Writing was, in fact, real. Then I stared, shocked, at what leapt off the Unbendable Page, just above the lines for President of the University and Chairman of the Board: The signatures of two women.

In a New York Times profile of Swarthmore College (former) president Rebecca Chopp–who was the first woman to hold each of her most recent academic posts: provost at Emory University in Atlanta, dean at Yale Divinity School, president at Colgate University in New York State, and president at Swarthmore—Chopp said, “I’m of that generation where that happened a lot. My being a woman has become less significant with each post, as more women head other universities.” (In September, Chopp will begin a new post as Chancellor of the University of Denver. Want to guess how many women have held that job?)

But there aren’t many women at the helm of other universities. Only one-quarter of American colleges and universities have female presidents; less than one-fifth of academic boards are chaired by women. I couldn’t find statistics on institutions with women in both leadership roles, but I suspect they number in the handfuls.

Judith Rodin was the first woman to lead an Ivy League school, becoming President of the University of Pennsylvania in 1994; by 2011, women were presidents at half of the eight Ivy League schools. (Read a short blog post here from Women in Science, a forum on nature.com, that marks the milestone of parity. That post links to a 2007 story about a gathering of female presidents of Ivy League schools, at which Ruth Simmons said, “When it starts to become the issue of being the last Ivy League School to have a woman president — who wants to do that?” Incidentally, Dr. Simmons was the first African American president of an Ivy League school, in addition to being Brown’s first female president.)

The American Council on Education said that in 1986 just 10% of college presidents were women; by 2009, that number had risen to 23%. By 2012, the number had passed 25%–but only just, at 26.4%. (Progress, people.) And this (negligible increase) came during a period when racial diversity in the university presidency fell from 13.6% to 12.6%.

As for the board side of things: In 2009, the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities produced a study of women on academic boards of trustees. It found “the average percentage of female board members rose steadily from about 20 percent in 1981 to about 31 percent in 2007–steady but slow progress…. [The percentage of board chairs who are female] rose from slightly under 10 percent in 1981 to about 18 percent in 2007.”

So, what does this gender disparity indicate?  In April 2013, Pitzer College President Laura Trombley spoke to a blogger at Bitch magazine about gender disparity in academic leadership: “It is actually a pipeline issue. If you don’t start looking at how women can enter the administration ranks at a lower level, then you are not going to solve greater representation at the presidency level,” she said.

Why is this important? (If you have to ask, well, I feel sorry for you.) Trombley said, “You look at where women presidents tend to be concentrated, it tends to be at the community college level. You can trace power, status and money.”

As for my own post-graduation money (read: alumni support): Go Boxers.

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