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The recent release of the 2023 American College President Study (ACPS) by the American Council on Education paints a picture of slow movement in women ascending to the college presidency. Only one in three college presidents is a woman, with the majority of those leading community colleges (43 percent) and the lowest representation of women found at doctoral institutions (29 percent). Based on the results, ACE’s goal of having women lead half of American colleges by 2030 is in question, despite the good work of its Moving the Needle program.

Certainly, the increase in diversity in the presidency is laudable, as leaders of color now represent 27 percent of all presidents. Yet those gains are also uneven across institutional type, with 17 percent presidents of color leading doctoral institutions and 32 percent leading baccalaureate colleges. And women’s parity is still elusive when cutting the data for leaders of color, as men of color are more often presidents (60 percent of all presidents of color).

Understanding the intersection women leaders have with respect to race and ethnicity highlights an area of importance. When looking at all women presidents, women of color make up nearly one in three women presidents (31 percent). No matter how the data are split, however, women, and in particular women of color, lag behind men as college presidents.

When the ACPS results are released every five years, people wring their hands about what needs to happen to expand the pathway for women into the presidency. Certainly, numerous programs to promote women’s leadership exist, like Moving the Needle and HERS, yet this attention alone to the long-standing equity gaps has not brought the change that’s most desired and needed.

The million-dollar question remains: Why not? What is needed to build effective pathways for women to reach a presidency? What existing barriers must come down? Following are suggestions on a way forward.

The Traditional Pipeline

The ACPS outcomes show how entrenched the notion is that the traditional pathway to the presidency starts with an academic position. Certainly, alternative paths are expanding, with career administrators making up nearly 30 percent of college presidents, but faculty experience remains the most common route. And if that route is so pivotal in the presidential pipeline, it behooves us to pay closer attention to who makes up the faculty ranks.

Men represent 63 percent of full professors, which aligns with the way men outnumber women as presidents. Encouragingly, more equity emerges at the associate professor rank (52 percent men) and with new assistant professors reversing the majority to women (54 percent women). Less representation is evident when considering the race and ethnicity of faculty members, however, as 76 percent of full professors are white, and white workers represent 70 percent of associate professors and 61 percent of assistant professors. Still, for both sex and race/ethnicity, some longer-term optimism remains when it comes to who becomes a president, given the changes at the assistant professor rank.

What Sitting Presidents Can Do

Current presidents hold a central role in broadening the pathway for women to top positions. When presidents use sponsorship versus mentoring, progress can occur. More than mentoring, sponsorship is intentional in how today’s leaders can help advance the careers of women by bringing their names into rooms in which they are often absent, providing access to professional development and helping expand their professional networks.

For instance, sitting presidents can set up stretch assignments to help women who aspire to be leaders acquire skill sets that are not in their typical job description. They can make space for such assignments by providing release time or reassigning tasks and making sure the women are appropriately compensated for this work.

As an example, the ACPS study found that leaders would like more training and development on entrepreneurial ventures, fundraising and budget/financial management. Sitting presidents can provide midlevel women leaders with opportunities to learn those skills by placing them on key committees, setting up presidential fellow programs on the campus and nominating them and sending them to national leadership development programs that focus on fiscal management and other relevant skills.

Aspiration and Agency

Some individuals have top-level leadership positions already in mind, while others first contemplate advancement because someone else recognizes their potential and taps them for opportunities. And sometimes agency is sparked in aspiring leaders after they watch others in leadership and think, “I can do that,” or “I can do that better.”

Here, too, the ACPS is informative, as women of color in particular said they felt they had less of a realistic assessment of the current challenges facing their institution or system (52 percent) relative to white women (68 percent) or men (70 percent). Hiring committees and governing boards can do more to share an authentic view of institutional areas requiring improvement during the interview process. Women candidates can learn more about general challenges facing all institutions and the skill sets required in top-level positions by talking with sitting leaders, attending webinars and professional development sessions, and developing an expanded professional network.

The ACPS reported that women face delays in thinking of a college presidency as a career goal. Sitting women presidents first aspired to serving in the top job later than men (47 years old versus 44 years old), often due to family considerations and the lack of female role models in presidential positions. Those different aspirational timetables were more pronounced when taking race and ethnicity into account as the difference in age of aspiration for women of color was four years later than men of color (46 years old versus 42 years old).

Such data provide two insights into how to expand the pathway for women. First, what can help women to consider a presidency earlier? As previously noted, sponsorship by current presidents is one way to help women think of moving up. Second, how can women build competencies in the time between thinking about being a president and actually becoming one?

Women aspiring to the presidency can look for opportunities to learn more about fiscal operations in particular, knowing that current presidents identified them as areas in which they would like more training. Again, sponsors can help provide those opportunities along the pipeline.

The Double Bind

Women face a double bind: they’re expected to not be “too aggressive” or “too assertive,” yet by doing so, they are often viewed as not “acting like a leader” in an authoritative way (i.e., like men would act). Men also often receive accolades when they engage in childcare responsibilities or are supportive partners, while women can be penalized in their careers for the very same behavior. Gender expectations contribute to and reinforce roles based on sex, and the existence of such biases in hiring committees influences who is selected as president. Not challenging the double bind and how leaders can look and work differently shortchanges who ultimately gets the position.

Another outcome of the double bind is that women are often selected to lead institutions in precarious positions. This phenomenon, known as the glass cliff, reflects how women are often hired to lead institutions in crisis compared to men who get preference in searches to lead institutions that are succeeding. The obvious danger in these types of glass-cliff hires is that when the institution in crisis falters, or even fails, the blame is laid at the feet of the woman leading at the time and not recognized as an institutional outcome. Coupled with the glass cliff is the prestige factor; consider the fact that more women lead community colleges than other institutional types.

Moving past the double bind and considering who can lead a college or university requires rethinking expectations of who looks and acts like a leader, highlighting more examples of women leading successful enterprises, and intentionally sponsoring women for top positions.

Governing Boards

Governing boards choose college presidents, and their hiring actions to date have not built parity for women in presidential roles. A look at board composition shows that men make up the majority of boards at both public (63 percent) and private (64 percent) colleges—eerily similar to the makeup of college presidents (two men for every woman). Given the double bind women face, it is important for governing boards to address implicit biases about who they expect can lead the institution and who “looks” like a leader. A central tenet of implicit bias is that people favor those who look like them. Two ways to address that include implicit bias training for boards and the placement of more women on boards.

Scholars Raquel M. Rall, Demetri L. Morgan and Felecia Commodore argue for a culturally sustaining governance model in which boards center equity in decision-making in ways that influence the culture of the institution and leadership hiring patterns. They argue that board decisions must focus on what best supports success for campus stakeholders, and that individual trustees must expand their cultural competence and critical consciousness. Central to advancing women leaders in higher education is for boards to make decisions that begin to change campus practices in ways that support women leaders as they move through the pipeline and into top level positions.

Search Firms

Search firms often receive the charge to bring a diverse applicant pool to advertised positions. Yet just growing the pool doesn’t really change the hiring system. If search firms seek more diverse candidates, the process must move past a check-the-box mentality of simply getting applicants into the pool and instead focus on the specific reasons why the pool lacks diversity. A postmortem on concluded searches can begin to build a dashboard for search firms and, by default, for the institutions that hire them. That dashboard can track the starting point of the search to the short list and campus interviewees selection to the final candidate. Does the pool start off with an equal number of men and women in it? How many women then make it to the short list or campus visit? How many come out as the final hire? Seeing trends in the process can then lead to examination of the why behind the numbers.

Active coaching by search firm consultants can also help rectify the fact that women first start thinking about a presidency later than men. Because past experience serves as the best predictor in hiring top-level leaders, the involvement of search firms in more midlevel hires, such as deans, can introduce women candidates to search firms earlier, helping them identify future candidates to keep an eye on. Search firms can use this earlier engagement to coach candidates on which experiences in these midlevel roles would be most beneficial for moving up the career ladder.

Moving Forward

For the ACPS to report out different outcomes in the next version of the survey five years from now, real change needs to occur. First, higher education must rethink its traditional image of a leader and address implicit biases that favor white men as college leaders. Amplifying the exposure that sitting women presidents have as role models can also expand the pool of those aspiring to be a president, because more women can then see themselves in the role.

Second, sponsoring more opportunities for women along the pathway will make them more competitive in presidential searches. By obtaining experience in a range of functional areas, they can understand the issues and learn strategies for addressing them in today’s complex environment and build a repertoire of leadership tools.

Finally, governing boards must make active changes that move to a more culturally sustaining governance model—one that focuses on equity. Diversifying boards and training them critical consciousness and cultural competency is vital. We need a combination of factors to truly move the needle for women leaders.

Pamela L. Eddy is associate provost for faculty affairs and development at the College of William & Mary.

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