When Sandra Peart arrived on the University of Richmond’s campus in 2007 to head its Jepson School of Leadership Studies, she was a bit of an outsider. While the university had had female deans in the past, she would be the only woman in the deans' council meetings for about two years.
It wasn’t a problem, she said. Coming from the field of economics, she was used to being the only woman in the room. She worked well with the male deans, she said; she never felt disrespected or discriminated against, and she and the four other deans would joke about the situation.
The tables have turned fairly dramatically since then. In the last two years, three outgoing male deans in the colleges of law, business, and arts and sciences have been replaced by women. “Jim [Narduzzi, the last remaining male dean] and I have fun teasing each other,” she said.
While women’s presence in academic administration has been growing for decades, it is still uncommon to see them constitute a majority of a university’s academic leadership. That turnaround is notable, said Judy Touchton, a consultant who advises female academics on how to advance and who formerly served as deputy director of the American Council on Education’s Office of Women in Higher Education . She said situations where women constitute a majority of academic leadership, as they do at Richmond, are rare. While significant research has explored how the leadership styles of men and women differ, these studies have tended to focus on individual leaders. Richmond and other colleges and universities that are beginning to see the percentage of women in administrative ranks swell will be the first to explore how a large cohort of female administrators changes an institution’s culture.
Differences may be slight or nonexistent, some say, noting that aggregate differences in leadership styles among men and women are small and that middle-management positions like deans are fairly constraining. But others hypothesize that more female leaders will help upend the traditional ideal of leadership and open up both women and men to new ways of approaching leadership and management, as well as making it easier for successive generations of women to transition into the upper ranks in various fields.
A 2008 study  by the American Council on Education  found that only 35.5 percent of academic deans were female. That was a lower percentage than almost any other senior administrative position, including chiefs of staff (54.7 percent), chief academic officers (38 percent), senior administrative officers (42.9 percent) and chief student affairs and enrollment management officers (45.4 percent). The only positions with less female representation were executive vice presidents (31 percent), and college presidents (23 percent). And these figures may be somewhat misleading, given that some institutions, such as women's colleges and community colleges, tend to be more diverse in their leaders than the rest of higher education.
Because women are still the distinct minority as deans, it is uncommon (though not unheard of) for them to constitute the majority of deans at an institution. Women hold two of the three dean positions at Eastern Connecticut State University , which also has a female president and vice president of academic affairs. At Alfred University  in New York, four of the five deans are women. At the Illinois Institute of Technology , women don’t make up a majority of the seven dean seats, but they lead three of the university’s schools -- including engineering and architecture.
Peart said she sees the rise of women in leadership positions as a confluence of two trends. The first is the widespread retirement of the previous generation of leadership, which has freed up spots for new leaders. The second is that the generation of women accepted into Ph.D. programs in the 1980s are now reaching the point in their careers when they are qualified to enter administrative ranks. “There has really been a change going on in the last 30 years, where smart and talented women are increasingly admitted into Ph.D. programs,” Peart said “You can’t have this change if 30 years ago, women weren’t getting Ph.D.s.”
Richmond didn’t set out looking for female deans, said Steve Allred, Richmond’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, who co-chaired all three recent dean searches. Like all administrative searches, they wanted the best candidates for the various jobs.
But Allred said that, unlike other searches he’s seen, the searches at Richmond were infused with a sense of diversity from the very beginning. “You can’t create a diverse applicant pool by looking at it as an add-on to the search process, where you go through the motions and say, ‘Now let’s add some women and minorities,’ ” he said. “You really have to build that from the beginning with a sense of looking at any and every one.”
And building a diverse pool takes turning over a lot of stones. For example, over the course of the most recent search for the dean of the law school, he estimates that committee members made between 300 and 500 phone calls to prospective candidates or people who might be able to suggest candidates, some they knew and some cold. In all three searches, Allred said, the women who ended up with the jobs were the consensus favorites among the committees.
The various ways in which the four Richmond deans became candidates for their jobs underscore how hard the college had to work. Peart, an economist by training, developed a leadership studies program at Baldwin-Wallace. It was during the development of that program that she first encountered Richmond’s Jepson School. When Richmond began searching for a new dean, she was on the university's list.
Nancy A. Bagranoff was dean of the business school at Old Dominion University when she heard about the opening from a colleague at Richmond. Perdue, formerly an associate dean at Georgetown Law School, was listed in a databank  kept by the Association of American Law Schools of potential minority and women deans, and she had met a Richmond faculty member who spoke highly of the university.
Kathleen Skerrett, the new dean of the School of Arts and Letters, whose hire was announced in March, was an associate dean at Grinnell College, in Iowa. She said she was not interested in administrative roles initially. She moved up into Grinnell’s administration without plans to become a dean, but she became interested in the Richmond job when she was nominated by a colleague at Grinnell.
All four female deans said they were attracted to the idea of moving to Richmond for similar reasons. Part of it was the university's profile. It has a strong academic reputation, and in the past few years has done very well at recruiting faculty members, they said. All agreed the university had an “up and coming” reputation.
The three most recent hires all cited the president and provost and the university’s strategic plan as reasons for wanting to move to Richmond. “The strategic plan that [Richmond President] Ed Ayers and the campus developed makes very clear what the expectations of the campus are going forward,” Peart said. “It’s not just what the goals are but the clarity with which the goals are expressed, that can really attract applicants.”
None of them cited what Touchton said might have been a factor: Richmond has a history of being open to female leadership that many other higher education institutions do not. Back in the early 1900s, when the University of Richmond was still Richmond College, the administration opened up Westhampton College, a coordinate college for women, and women held executive roles at Westhampton for much of its history. Faculty voted in the 1970s to integrate the academic missions of the colleges, leading to the development of the university as a coeducational institution. Westhampson is now the college for undergraduate women, and provides support services and leadership and development opportunities for women on campus.
Whether the combined presence of the four female deans will being about any cultural changes at Richmond, or other colleges that end up in similar situations, is yet to be seen. In fall 2010, women already held 42 of 82 executive/administrative jobs at the university. For fall 2010, Richmond’s full-time faculty  was 42 percent female, with women constituting a majority at the assistant professor level. The student body  was already 55 percent female, with particularly high percentages in the leadership studies and continuing studies schools.
Research, mostly on corporate leadership, has found that women, on average, have slightly different approaches to leadership than men. Women tend to be more collaborative, to consult with others more often, and to be better at considering the emotions of people they work with, although most people can point to collegial men and non-collegial women in leadership roles, too. Theories about why these differences exist are far from definitive.
Alice Eagly, a psychologist at Northwestern University, has conducted some of that research. She said in the aggregate, research has found slight disparities in leadership styles, such as that women are less likely to be “command and control” leaders and more likely to be open to collaboration and consultation. But on the whole, the differences are slight.
She said that most women leaders have experience with being the only woman in their leadership structure, and are accustomed to emulating male leaders; thus their styles might be constrained. “When women only hold one or a tiny minority of leadership positions, they are often concerned with being seen as competent, so there’s a pressure to do it like the men do it, and they have to do as well or better,” Eagly said. “When you’re the only one, you’re under more scrutiny; mistakes matter more, and you have to be extra good.”
Put more women in administrative ranks, academics and observers say, and both women and men could be freed up to take different approaches to leadership. Skerrett said this happened at Grinnell, where she worked previously, which also had a majority female leadership in her office. “When you have a cohort of women leaders working together, they become free to express individual leadership styles,” she said. “They’re not expressing the ‘women’s’ style of leadership.”
She said she takes a slightly different approach than other academic leaders she’s seen. For example, she said she prefers to visit faculty members in their offices during the day, instead of bringing them to her. She attributes this partly to the fact that she came up in an environment where there were few female leaders. Because of that, she said she never quite knew how she was “supposed” to act when she became an administrator.
Bagranoff, who started her tenure as dean of the business school in summer 2010, said she rarely thinks of herself as a “female business school dean,” despite the rarity of female leaders in the field. She just thinks of herself as a business school dean.
That might be because middle-management roles like deans don't provide much latitude for diverse leadership styles. “Roles are very constraining,” Eagly said. "If you’re a dean, there’s a way of being a dean, and you wouldn’t expect radical change.”
One change that has become clear in research is that within organizations that have many female leaders, future female leaders are more likely to emerge. Several factors play into this, including direct mentoring relationships, but it’s mostly the result of younger women simply seeing other women in leadership roles and becoming aware that they are a possibility. "What will happen for students, men and women, is that their perception of leadership will broaden to see leadership in terms of different styles and qualities of leadership instead of gender being a big deal," Touchton said.
Narduzzi, who has been the dean of the School of Continuing Studies for 17 years, said he doesn't predict much change. "Women have always played leadership roles at Richmond since the founding of Westhampton College 100 years ago," he said. "It's fair to say that 17 years ago, women were the minority on campus, and that has changed a lot. There's been a change in the balance, but I don’t know it's changed in the culture."
For the most part, Allred and the five deans said they don’t see much cultural shift happening on Richmond’s campus. They said they seem to get along well, based on the single meeting they've had, and that they are more likely to see themselves as a cohesive group than to note the differences among them. “Maybe we’ll simply carry on as a group of five academic leaders,” Peart said. “Some of whom are Canadian.”