Only 30% of presidents at higher education institutions are women, according to a 2017 report from the American Council on Education, and that number shrinks to between 10 and 25% at bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral institutions.

L. Hazel Jack and Hanna Rodriguez-Farrar wondered why there are relatively few female college presidents. As women in higher education leadership positions themselves, Jack and Rodriguez-Farrar wanted to understand the barriers to female candidates attaining the presidency.

“After so many years of dominating in degree attainment and steady cabinet membership, why do women still only represent less than 25% of college presidents at four-year schools?” asks Jack. “We decided to take a closer look at trends and try to uncover unseen factors.”

Creating a New Data Set

Jack currently serves as vice president for university communications and events at Colgate, while Rodriguez-Farrar is chief of staff to the president. Both women have done research on higher education leadership in the past. Rodriguez-Farrar’s doctoral dissertation considered the growth of women in executive positions in higher education over an 11-year span.

“My research was very big and broad, so looking specifically at college presidency was something I wanted to do but couldn’t,” she says. When she heard that Jack wanted to pursue the topic for her own doctoral research, Rodriguez-Farrar was interested in collaborating.

The two sifted through data from over 2,700 public, nonprofit private, and for-profit private four-year institutions using the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), a federal database that collects information from every institution in the United States that receives federal aid.

“We downloaded a file that included every college or university, narrowed down our focus to four-year institutions, and went through them one by one looking for women presidents,” explains Jack. “Then we looked at their backgrounds in search of trends — for example, what was their position immediately prior to the presidency? Did they have a terminal degree? Were they graduates of that institution?”

Uncovering Unexpected Bias

In their extensive research on the broader topic of women in higher education and business leadership, Jack and Rodriguez-Farrar have run across many of the same explanations for the scarcity of women. “It’s always the same reasons,” says Rodriguez-Farrar. “They’re not interested in leadership roles, raising children gets in the way, or sexism is embedded in the hiring process. While those reasons all make sense, we thought there might be something else at play here.”

And there was. “We discovered a different kind of bias,” says Rodriguez-Farrar. Presidential searches tend to look at people who have been provosts or academic deans, which requires full professorship, and that pool is still male dominated. “There’s a bias against women who are not in an academic rank. We have bigger hurdles to cross if we want to become college presidents.”

Also, when an institution does hire a president from outside academia, they tend to favor male candidates.

While these biases were unexpected, Jack says they are not really surprising. “We follow new appointments for women, and it’s very common to see provosts and deans appointed as presidents,” she says. “I knew there were more avenues to the presidency for men, but seeing the data in front of me confirmed it.”

Rodriguez-Farrar hopes their work will be helpful to institutions wanting to see more women in leadership positions. “In this day of data-driven analysis, they want to see evidence in numbers,” she says. “Now that we’ve identified this different kind of bias, it puts the responsibility on boards of trustees and search firms to begin looking for talent in other places. Let’s put these findings in front of them to show that, because of biases against women who aren’t in academic positions, they’re missing talent at a moment when the ranks are thin and we’re in desperate need.”

The average length of academic presidencies is falling, currently standing at just over six years, and the average age of presidents is trending higher. Meanwhile, the job description itself is changing, Rodriguez-Farrar notes — in a way that should prompt institutions to look beyond those with strictly academic backgrounds for leadership. “Presidents are now very much involved in fundraising, budgeting, external relations, admissions, enrollment, and other areas,” she says. “Many of those skills don’t come from experience as a dean or provost.”

A Need for Diversity

Jack and Rodriguez-Farrar’s research reveals the need for academic decision-makers to think beyond their accustomed pool of presidential possibilities. “Higher education is already under fire due to recent events such as the pandemic, as well as rising costs and accessibility limitations,” says Jack. “We need strong leaders who have the experience and knowledge to manage institutions well.”

Striving for diversity in leadership can offer ongoing benefits to higher education institutions, Jack says. “There are studies that show diverse groups of leaders make better decisions and their organizations are more profitable. If all presidents are the same demographic and gender, you’re not getting that diversity.” And there’s often a misalignment between an institution’s student population, which at many institutions is more than half female, and the leaders meant to represent their best interests.

Jack and Rodriguez-Farrar plan to partner with the American Council on Education to write up their research for a general audience, using updated data from 2020 or later. “They’re interested in our work because of the scope of institutions we reviewed,” says Rodriguez-Farrar. “Our hope is that our research will inspire colleges and universities to diversify their ranks in the years to come.”