For the first time, a majority of Ivy League schools will soon be led by women. Starting on 1 July 2023, Claudine Gay will assume the role of president at Harvard University, Nemat “Minouche” Shafik at Columbia University and Sian Leah Beilock at Dartmouth College. They will join current female presidents at Brown University, Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania.
Why does this matter?
However, the Ivy League is not new to selecting female presidents – they have been doing so for a few decades. Judith Rodin was the first, in 1994, when she became president of the University of Pennsylvania. She was followed by Ruth Simmons at Brown University and Shirley Tilghman at Princeton University, both in 2001. Rodin was succeeded by another woman, Amy Gutmann, in 2004.
Still, one reason this moment may be one to watch is that Ivy League institutions are often seen as exemplars of elite, complex institutions. So seeing what one could consider a critical mass of female leaders in the Ivy League could signal the benefit of women in leadership to other boards that are hesitant or slow to hire women as presidents.
How unusual is this across higher education?
I think it would be more surprising to see mostly female presidents at the majority of large public research universities, or at a majority of the schools in the Power 5 athletic conferences.
Despite what may seem like a boom in women leading institutions, the percentage of women in the presidency at colleges and universities more broadly has plateaued at between 25% and 30% for the past decade. This was after increasing from 9.5% in 1986 to 19% in 1998.
A number of factors contribute to this low percentage, including barriers within the college presidential pipeline – such as exclusion from networks that provide mentorship – reward and promotion structures that are not equitable across genders, and bias against womenin academic leadership roles.
A recent analysis of data on college presidents explains how this bias against women occurs, specifically when it comes to academic leadership roles. This is important because college presidents typically find their way to the presidency through academic leadership roles such as deans, vice provosts and provosts.