Gender Matters

Colleges with women as presidents and provosts and a critical mass as trustees have been speedier than other institutions in increasing share of faculty that is female, study finds.
December 16, 2009

Does having a woman in the top job (or the No. 2 slot) make a difference?

When it comes to faculty hiring, the answer appears to be Yes. And having a critical mass of women on boards of trustees also makes a difference. These are the results of a study released Tuesday by the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute. The arrival of significant numbers of women in the academy and among the ranks of senior administrators has led to much speculation about the impact of having women leaders at institutions doing hiring. The new study -- using a large sample of institutions, a long time frame, and a methodology that seeks to account for other factors in hiring -- could provide new evidence to those who argue that change at the top of institutions is crucial to promoting change at the junior faculty ranks as well.

The new study builds on the findings of one released by the Cornell center in January, finding that women have made slow but steady progress in their representation on college boards. Between 1981 and 2007, the percentage of trustees who are women increased to 31 percent from 20 percent. The research was conducted by the Cornell researchers for the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. When those findings were released in January, researchers said that a logical next question was to explore the impact of having women in leadership positions.

To examine that question, the new research uses data on hundreds of four-year colleges and universities, the gender split on their faculties from 1984 to 2007, and information on their presidents, provosts and board members. The formula used also takes into consideration the "expected" growth in female shares of faculties, by considering the differing supplies of female doctorates by field, and the relative emphasis at different colleges on fields where there are differing supplies of faculty talent. The period studied is one in which the percentage of women on faculties went up, although not at the levels of increases seen in the supply of new doctorates, so the study compares the relative gender diversification of faculties at institutions with differing demographics in senior positions and on boards.

Among the findings:

  • Institutions with female presidents, female provosts (or academic vice presidents), and more women on boards of trustees saw larger increases in the share of female faculty members than did other institutions.
  • The magnitude of the impact of women in these positions is greater at smaller institutions, which the report suggests may be due to those being institutions "where central administrators may play a greater role in faculty hiring decisions."
  • The impact of having more women as trustees kicks in only when a critical mass has been reached, either of the female proportion on the board (25 percent) or the number of women on the board (5).

The study notes that more work is needed to determine how these demographic shifts affect hiring. In particular, the authors cite a need for study of "on the ground" administrators -- deans and department chairs -- to see if their gender make-ups are related to hiring more women. And the study, citing a recent report on the hiring of women in science fields, notes that the presence of women in certain positions may send signals to applicants.

"The report of a recent National Research Council committee, upon which one of us served, found evidence that the gender of the chair of a faculty search committee in science and engineering fields at major research universities influences the likelihood that female Ph.D.'s will apply for the position; apparently knowledge of the gender of the chair of the search committee signals something to potential female applicants about the seriousness of the department in wanting to expand female faculty employment and in providing leadership opportunities for female colleagues," the study says.

The authors of the study are Ronald G. Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute; George H. Jakubson, associate professor of labor economics at Cornell; Mirinda L. Martin, a doctoral student in economics at Cornell; Joyce B. Main, a doctoral student in education at Cornell; and Thomas Eisenberg, an undergraduate economics major at Swarthmore College.


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