Leadership & Governance

Gender Balance at the Top of Ivy League Colleges Remains an Outlier in Academe

June 14, 2017

When Drew Gilpin Faust became Harvard’s first female president, in 2007, she joined an elite group of glass-ceiling breakers: women who lead Ivy League institutions. In fact, with Ms. Faust’s arrival, the select group of colleges achieved gender parity at the highest level, with half of the league’s colleges led by women.

At the time, Ruth J. Simmons was Brown University’s first female president and the first African-American leader of an Ivy League institution. Shirley M. Tilghman was the first female president of Princeton University. And Amy Gutmann — the successor to Judith Rodin, the first permanent female president of any Ivy League college — was the president of the University of Pennsylvania, a position she still holds today.

Yet the Ivy League, with its eight institutions, is an outlier. Over all in higher education, the share of women presidents has barely budged, remaining at about 25 percent over the past decade. As shown in the chart below, among the 19 non-Ivy League, private U.S. universities that are members of the Association of American Universities, for example, only four have had a female leader in a permanent position since 2000. (A fifth was led by a woman in an interim role.)

The record at public universities that are members of the AAU — an organization of top research institutions — is better, with 16 of the 34 having been led by a female president at least once since 2000.

The prominence of women leaders in the Ivy League can mask the stubborn lack of progress for women as college presidents over all, one researcher says.

"Women presidents in the Ivy League provide highly visible examples of women leaders and so, on the one hand, some people may say, ‘I guess we’ve made it,’" says Susan R. Madsen, a professor of management at Utah Valley University whose research includes female leaders in higher education. "But they don’t really represent the big picture. Progress is still very slow."

For most of Ms. Faust’s tenure at Harvard, the gender parity among Ivy League leaders has held firm, although the cast of characters has shifted. When Ms. Simmons retired from Brown, in 2012, the institution named another woman, Christina H. Paxson, to the post. Princeton hired a man to replace Ms. Tilghman, who also retired in 2012. But three years later, Cornell University’s first female president, Elizabeth Garrett, took office and the 50-50 balance was restored.

Ms. Garrett led Cornell for less than a year before dying of colon cancer, at the age of 52 in March 2016. Cornell’s new president, Martha E. Pollack, has held the position since April.

It’s too early to speculate who might replace Ms. Faust when she steps down, at the end of the 2017-18 academic year. But there’s a case to be made for Ivy League colleges and others to pursue gender equity at their top levels of leadership, experts say.

Female presidents bring a different perspective to the job, raise different concerns, and ask different questions than do their male counterparts, says Kevin Miller, a senior researcher at the American Association of University Women. Those are useful traits in making decisions.

"At the highest levels, where people have decision-making powers, women still aren’t in the room," he says. "The things that they would be focused on just aren’t being discussed because they’re not there."

Mr. Miller says that no matter where women serve as top leaders in higher education, they send the message that the presidency isn’t just a man’s job. It’s a tough bias to break, he says.

Gender Gap at the Top

The following chart shows the gender of top leaders at Ivy League colleges and United States members of the Association of American Universities since 2000. Each square reflects the leaders, including interim presidents, who were in office on January 1 of the corresponding years.

Ivy League
Brown U.                                    
Columbia U.                                    
Cornell U.                                    
Dartmouth College                                    
Harvard U.                                    
Princeton U.                                    
U. of Pennsylvania                                    
Yale U.                                    
Other private AAU colleges
Boston U.                                    
Brandeis U.                                    
Carnegie Mellon U.                                    
Case Western Reserve U.                                    
Duke U.                                    
Emory U.                                    
Johns Hopkins U.                                    
New York U.                                    
Northwestern U.                                    
Rice U.                                    
Stanford U.                                    
Tulane U.                                    
U. of Chicago                                    
U. of Rochester                                    
U. of Southern California                                    
Vanderbilt U.                                    
Washington U. in St. Louis                                    
Public AAU colleges
Georgia Tech                                    
Indiana U. at Bloomington                                    
Iowa State U.                                    
Michigan State U.                                    
Ohio State U.                                    
Penn State U.                                    
Purdue U.                                    
Rutgers U.                                    
Stony Brook U. (SUNY)
Texas A&M U. at College Station
U. at Buffalo (SUNY)
U. of Arizona                                    
U. of California at Berkeley                                    
U. of California at Davis                                    
U. of California at Irvine                                    
U. of California at Los Angeles                                    
U. of California at San Diego                                    
U. of California at Santa Barbara                                    
U. of Colorado at Boulder                                    
U. of Florida                                    
U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign                                    
U. of Iowa                                    
U. of Kansas                                    
U. of Maryland at College Park                                    
U. of Michigan at Ann Arbor                                    
U. of Minnesota-Twin Cities
U. of Missouri at Columbia                                    
U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill                                    
U. of Oregon                                    
U. of Pittsburgh                                    
U. of Texas at Austin                                    
U. of Virginia                                    
U. of Washington                                    
U. of Wisconsin at Madison                                    


Audrey Williams June is a senior reporter who writes about the academic workplace, faculty pay, and work-life balance in academe. Contact her at audrey.june@chronicle.com, or follow her on Twitter @chronaudrey.

J. Clara Chan, Suhauna Hussain, and Shannon Najmabadi contributed to the chart accompanying this article.