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Inspiring Inclusion: A Key Driver for Sustainable Growth in Higher Ed

6 min read

Thaís Roberto

The celebration of International Women’s Day offers the perfect time to shine a spotlight on the state of female leadership in higher education.

While significant strides have been made in the past few years, there’s still much ground to cover to ensure equitable representation and opportunity for women across all demographics. 

In this article, we delve into the current scenario and examine the challenges still faced by women in the sector, looking at what actionable strategies universities can implement to foster more inclusive and diverse leadership in academia.


The Current State of Female Leadership Within Higher Education 

The number of women in leadership positions is on the rise.

In March 2023, Times Higher Education reported that 48 out of the top 200 universities in the world have women holding the position of vice-chancellor or its equivalent, indicating a 12% increase from the previous year and a 41% increase over the past five years. 

In the U.S. alone, 16 of the highest-ranking universities have female presidents, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology– the country’s highest-ranked female-led institution since the appointment of Sally Kornbluth as president in 2023. But, unfortunately, the advancement implied by the numbers isn’t always reflected in the experience of the women holding these positions.

According to Community College League of California’s 2023 report on CEO tenure and retention, male CEOs hold their position for an average of 5,1 years, while their female counterparts stay for an average of 3,7 years. However, women’s shorter tenure is not a result of their inaptitude for the work. It reflects a system incapable of welcoming female leadership

Accounts of gender bias, hostility, and lack of respect for their authority are common among female leaders and aggravated among women of color and other minority groups, for whom sexism intersects with discrimination against race, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and numerous other factors.

Larry Galizio, president and CEO of the Community College League of California, highlights the importance of recognizing the extraordinary women of color in leadership positions, but cautions: “We need to do better, because we do not want short tenures, and we do not want boards and trustees who just have a lack of understanding or are not creating the conditions for success.”


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Click here to listen to the Keystone Higher Ed Chats podcast, Episode 3: "Inspiring Female Founder in Higher Ed: Rachel Fletcher" 


Challenges Faced by Female Leaders at Higher Ed Institutions

Despite equal qualifications and expertise, women in leadership roles often face disparities in pay: as shown by a 2022 report by CUPA-HR, female university presidents are paid $0.91 for every $1.00 paid to male presidents – a reflection of systemic biases that also undermine the financial stability and recognition of professional women.

In addition to the wage disparity, they encounter countless obstacles to career advancement within academia. The phenomenon, sometimes referred to as a “glass ceiling,” comprehends the unspoken hurdles that stall women’s careers at the midmanagement level: barriers to top leadership roles don’t appear suddenly after years of hard work; instead, these opportunities vanish at different stages of their professional journey.

Julianna Barnes, chancellor of the South Orange County Community College District, told Inside Higher Ed that she didn’t envision herself in such a position: “I set limitations for myself without even realizing it, because I believed people like me didn’t become presidents.”

These and many other challenges arise from the unconscious and deeply ingrained biases that shape perceptions and decisions regarding women’s leadership potential. As a result, women may face skepticism, resistance, or microaggressions in their leadership journey, hindering their confidence and professional growth.

However, although it is a complex issue, institutions can work to overcome outdated and discriminatory professional practices in various ways.


Strategies to Promote Female Leadership in Higher Ed

Addressing these challenges requires multifaceted approaches to individual empowerment and systemic change. Mentorship programs like the New Leadership Academy at the University of Utah and the HERS Network provide guidance, support, and skill development for aspiring female leaders and institutions looking for change.

Additionally, implementing policy changes that endorse gender diversity in leadership, promoting transparency in salary negotiations, and fostering collaboration and networking opportunities among female leaders can produce meaningful progress.

Instituting inclusive hiring and promotion practices is another essential step in mitigating biases and creating equitable opportunities. Through transparent recruitment processes, diverse selection committees, and blind review procedures, recruiters can help counteract unconscious biases and ensure fair evaluation of candidates based on merit.

Most importantly, the focus must remain on changing the system, not the women in it. As Gloria Blackwell, CEO of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “We really want to push the conversation away from the discussion around fixing women to be better, to be more assertive. It really is the system that needs an overhaul, not women.”


Impact of Diverse Leadership on Universities

Embracing diverse leadership not only aligns with principles of equity and social justice but also brings tangible benefits to academic institutions. 

From a business standpoint, inclusion is a profitable endeavor: several studies have shown that companies with a higher percentage of women at the executive level achieve higher profits than those without women on the board.

Moreover, diverse representation at the helm fosters a more inclusive and welcoming environment that attracts and supports marginalized faculty and students who would otherwise not feel empowered to seek academic development. As newer generations start considering what university to attend, campus diversity has become a deciding factor among many students.

Ultimately, diverse leadership sets the stage for visionary women intent on paving the way for a more vibrant and resilient higher education industry.


As we recognize International Women’s Day, the time comes to reaffirm our commitment to championing female leadership in higher education. By dismantling barriers, fostering inclusivity, and amplifying diverse voices, every institution can play a small part in cultivating a brighter future where every woman has the opportunity to thrive and lead with excellence. 

📣Click here to listen to the Keystone Higher Ed Chats podcast, Episode 3: "Inspiring Female Founder in Higher Ed: Rachel Fletcher" 

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