Throughout history, the world of academia—an important route to power and influence, and a source of solid, tenure-protected careers—has been dominated by white men. It wasn’t until 1837 that Oberlin College in Ohio became the first college to allow coeducation. It wasn't until 1892 that Alice Palmer became the first woman to hold a leadership position at a coed institution, as dean of women at the University of Chicago.

Since then, gender representation in academic leadership has been improving, albeit slowly. There are typically more women in untenured positions, such as instructors and assistant professors, but there is still a glass ceiling when it comes to top-level roles, such as college president and provost. This applies not only to women faculty but also to minorities, transgender, and nonbinary staff.

While we recognize that gender is nonbinary, due to lack of available data, this article focuses only on men and women. With respect to gender-fluid individuals, we report gender representation in academic leadership as men and women, rather than male and female. We acknowledge that sex as reported may not accurately represent an individual’s identity.

Key Takeaways

  • Women are represented in academic leadership but make up a smaller portion of senior-level positions.
  • A gender wage gap exists in academic leadership.
  • Institutions are beginning to recognize the value of diversity among faculty and board members.

Women Are Disproportionately Represented

The “pipeline myth” suggests that the reason that the positions of college president, provost, dean, department chair, and tenured professor are dominated by men is that there are not enough qualified women to fill the role. Yet more women are graduating with advanced degrees than men—and for quite some time. In the past three decades, more than half of all master’s degrees were awarded to women. Looking at doctoral degrees, women have been outpacing men since the 2005–06 academic year. Women college presidents are also more likely to hold a doctoral degree.

Women’s representation in academic leadership has been growing, but men still hold far more of the top administrative positions. According to a 2017 study from the American Council on Education, around 30% of college presidents are women, and women make up about 30% of college boards of directors. Even more concerning is that roughly 5% of college presidents are racial or ethnic minority women.

Women also tend to be promoted less and lag behind men on the tenure track. According to a recent study from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR), the percentage of women among faculty members decreases with each increase in rank. The same holds true for minority staff.  

Boardroom Diversity


While they make up a relatively small percentage of governing boards, women members bring unique and valuable perspectives to the table. The percentage of women board members has been increasing, but slowly. At public colleges in 2015, 32% of board members were women, up from 28% in 2010, and 24% of women were board chairs, up from 17% in 2010. Minority women again fall behind White women and White men when it comes to board representation.

Gender Pay Gap in Academia

As in many other industries, women in academic leadership positions tend to earn less than men. Research from CUPA-HR shows that in 2016, women on average earned approximately 80 cents for every $1 earned by men. This is slightly worse than the overall national wage gap of 82 cents per dollar. Women of color with high-level careers in academia earned 67 cents for every $1 earned by White men.

The gender wage gap in academic leadership applies across almost all ranks. Overall, during the 2018–19 academic year, men took home over $16,000 more than women on average. The salary premium for professors who are men was more than $19,000.

Family and Career Path

There are also noticeable differences in the backgrounds and home lives of women and men in high-level positions. For example, according to the American College President Study, college presidents who are men were more likely to have worked at a different institution prior to becoming president than women presidents.

Women presidents were more likely to have participated in a leadership development program within their institution. More women presidents have served as chief academic officer or another high-level administrative position than presidents who are men. These qualifications could suggest that women would be better equipped to lead colleges in times of crisis.

Family life also seems to have a bigger impact on women’s careers in academia. Thirty-two percent of women college presidents reported altering their career to care for a child, spouse, or parent, compared with only 16% of men. This could be part of the reason why women are lagging behind men on the tenure track. Women presidents are also less likely to be married and have children than college presidents who are men.         

LGBTQ Representation

Academic leadership positions are predominantly held by straight White men, but in recent years, the number of college presidents in the LGBTQ community has been on the rise. Historically, it has been difficult for gay and transgender people to move past the position of provost. A college president is typically hired by the board, and the process tends to be very political.

In 2010, a group of college presidents wanted to create awareness about this unfair bias and lack of representation in the higher education industry. They formed the LGBTQ Presidents in Higher Education with the committee Partners of Presidents (POP) as a formal part of its structure. According to its website, the group’s mission is as follows:

“LGBTQ Presidents in Higher Education advances effective leadership in the realm of post-secondary education, supports professional development of LGBTQ leaders in that sector, and provides education and advocacy regarding LGBTQ issues within the global academy and for the public at large.”

Looking Ahead

The global situation of 2020-21 has presented many challenges to colleges and universities, making diversity an even more important issue. Now may be an ideal time to identify women and people of color who have potential to become valuable leaders in a time of crisis. This is true for current staff and outside pools of candidates.

When it comes to governing boards, certain barriers, such as financial requirements, may be preventing women and minorities from participating. Some boards have been actively trying to eliminate these barriers to attract more diverse candidates. Boards are also making sure that new members have their voices heard. Events such as new-member retreats and orientations are some ways that boards are working toward their diversity goal.

The Bottom Line

Although the percentage of women in academic leadership has been growing, the lack of diversity is still widely apparent. Institutions can improve representation from all groups by identifying and recruiting qualified women and members of the LGBTQ community for high-level roles. A diverse staff and governing board may have a positive influence on key stakeholders, such as current and prospective students, alumni, and accrediting bodies.