by Heidi Brown
If you think academia is better for women's advancement than the corporate world, think again.
Women are making progress professionally: They have assumed unprecedented positions in government and business. But when it comes to the supposedly progressive world of academia, the ceiling has surprisingly few pockmarks.
So when reports trickled out this year about anonymous donations ranging from $1.5 million to $10 million to at least 17 woman-headed schools--from Binghamton University to the University of Southern Mississippi --it put a spotlight on the value of this largely unheralded group of women leaders.
The American Council on Education (ACE) says that 23% of college presidents are women, a marked improvement over 1986's 10%. But in a profession that is often associated with women (75% of U.S. school teachers, not including professors, are female), the number is shockingly low.15 Female College Presidents
Molly Broad, president of the ACE, says the dearth of female college presidents comes down to the hiring process. Since a president is selected by an institution's board of trustees--women, especially minority women, are virtually absent from most--tips on navigating the interview process and news about job openings tend to stay among the insiders: men.
"It wasn't called the 'old boys' network' for nothing," Broad says, laughing. "It applies to academia, not just Wall Street." Broad knows that exclusive club well. She spent 10 years as president of the University of North Carolina system--the first woman in that post in more than 200 years.
"Even with an amazingly smart man on the UNC board," recalls Broad, "when I first nominated a woman as chancellor of one of our campuses, [the trustee] grumbled, 'I thought we did that already.' "
There's also a large disparity in tenured professorships, increasingly hard-to-come-by positions that are often the pipeline to leadership positions at universities. Nearly twice as many men (64%) as women have tenure, says Catherine Hill, the director of research at the American Association of University Women (AAUW).
Yet the future is looking brighter. Right now 40% of college presidents are 61 years of age or older. That means a significant turnover is in the offing. With women getting more involved in philanthropy recently, there's a chance we'll see more of them joining trustee boards--and influencing the selection of college presidents.
Academic achievement and dedication among women are at an all-time high. More than half of all students in law school and medical school are female. The AAUW found that among low-income college students, who generally bear a large financial burden themselves, a higher percentage were women. Among upper-income students, who are frequently assisted by their parents, there is parity between the sexes.
Some worry that women are somehow achieving at the expense of men, but Hill, of the AAUW, cautions against assuming that men are now somehow "lost." The number of men enrolled in college is increasing along with that of women, she says. The AAUW has found that among high school students, in states where test scores are high among girls, they're also high among boys.
"When I created a commission on the status of academic women in Arizona 20 years ago, I wouldn't have anticipated we would see as much progress as we have," says Broad of the ACE.
The most hopeful sign of all for aspiring female academic leaders: Of the eight Ivy League universities, half are now helmed by women. Brown University has a black female president, Ruth Simmons. The president of the prestigious computer science and engineering school, M.I.T., Susan Hockfield, is also a woman and part of a trend of women who are rising to executive ranks armed with math and science pedigrees.
It's progress, but it's slow. To date, a woman president is nearly always followed by a man upon leaving. A man was hired after Broad stepped down from UNC, and at Duke University , Richard H. Brodhead took the reins from Nannerl Keohane in 2004. Even progressive Oberlin College in Ohio replaced its popular female president, Nancy Dye, with a man in 2007.
Safe to say that college hiring practices may be improving, but their performance so far rates about a C.15 Female College Presidents
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