The LEAP Challenge Blog

Kathryn Peltier Campbell
Former Senior Academic Editor and Editor, Liberal Education

Rising Early and Pushing Barriers: Women's Leadership in Higher Education

I would like to think of myself as a morning person, but truthfully, I find it difficult to get up early. On one January morning each year, though, I am eager to get out of bed before sunrise—to greet colleagues arriving at the Networking Breakfast for Women Faculty and Administrators, a perennially popular event at AAC&U’s Annual Meeting.

This year was no exception. Arriving at the ballroom in the Washington Grand Hyatt where the breakfast would be held, I found several early risers already gathering to say hello to old and new friends. The energy in the room was palpable when our distinguished speaker, Lynn Gangone, arrived.

As vice president for leadership programs at the American Council on Education (ACE), Lynn was there to answer a question for us: “Is it really my fault?” Encapsulated within this question were many others, some particular to each listener and some shared among us. Is it my fault that I haven’t advanced further in my career? Is it my fault that women as a whole haven’t made greater gains in leadership across higher education? Lynn helped us put these questions into perspective, using data from ACE’s recently released infographic brief, “Pipelines, Pathways, and Institutional Leadership: An Update on the Status of Women in Higher Education.” (An audio recording of her address is available here.)

As Lynn reminded us, women’s low representation within high-level leadership positions has long been attributed to a “pipeline” problem—but the ACE report underscores that this is a myth. Women now earn more than half of all degrees at every level (associate’s through doctoral); they are highly educated and eminently qualified for leadership. But within higher education, they are constrained in lower-ranking positions by that persistently present “glass ceiling”—the set of “intangible systemic barriers” that keep them from advancing.

The ACE report presents more stark statistics: women are only 27 percent of college and university presidents and are outnumbered by men two-to-one on governing boards; they hold a lower percentage of tenured positions than men, and they earn less money across all ranks, disciplines, and institutional types (except for two-year private colleges). And if we consider race in combination with gender, the glass ceiling for women of color appears even lower than it does for their white female peers.

For those of us committed to gender equity, these figures are far too similar to the data AAC&U compiled eight years ago for A Measure of Equity: Women’s Progress in Higher Education. They speak to the persistent challenges that women face: the stereotypes and discrimination that keep women not only from higher education leadership, but from public office; the reported sense that women must demonstrate “effortless perfection,” a phrase that surfaced in Duke University’s review of the climate for undergraduate women; the narrowness of conversations about “work–life balance” that are rooted in traditional concepts about gender roles. These cultural factors severely limit what is possible for women (and for some men), and they do so in combination with additional societal factors related to other aspects of identity, such as race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Implicit and explicit biases related to these factors have consequences for all of us who miss out on lost potential leadership.

Challenging and changing these circumstances is a tremendous job. Fortunately, it’s a job that has been enthusiastically accepted by allies across higher education: by Lynn and her colleagues at ACE, who have launched the Moving the Needle initiative to bring women’s representation among higher education’s chief executives to 50 percent by 2030; by HERS (Higher Education Resource Services), which is “creating and sustaining a community of women leaders in higher education”; by my colleagues at AAC&U who are working to change what is possible for women by increasing undergraduate women’s presence in computing and supporting the success of women of color faculty in STEM fields.  

As Lynn reminded the audience on that January morning, at present, women are providing leadership to address these and other issues “in environments that aren’t designed for us.” Like Duke’s undergraduate women, we may be asked to display “effortless perfection” in those environments—which may mean devoting our early mornings to hiding the effort that perfection actually requires.

For those of us who work within this reality, and those who want to change it, rising early at times may be necessary—for now. And when I have to get up early, I’m comforted by knowing that I am in such good company. But I am hoping for a day when we can all sleep in, secure in the idea that women and men are leading higher education—and the world at large—together, on equal footing.


Kathryn Peltier Campbell is editor of Diversity & Democracy and coordinating editor for gender equity in education at the Association of American Colleges and Universities