Diversity and Democracy

Gender Equity in Higher Education: Calling for Equitable, Integrative, and Intergenerational Leadership

Seven years after leaving a deanship and a tenured position in English and Women’s and Gender Studies for a new career in national higher education leadership, I find myself looking toward the decades ahead for women in higher education, toward our full and equitable participation in our democracy—which profoundly needs our help. At the same time, I find myself holding the concerns of women both apart from and within those of all our students and faculty—for the sake of future generations and their learning.

In this article, I want to offer three approaches to women’s leadership and leadership for gender equity in higher education, reflecting the complexities of our time and emphasizing the realities of the changing faculty. These approaches build on one lesson I have learned at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U): the value of teamwork. AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative points to teamwork as an Essential Learning Outcome for all college students (National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise 2007). Employers report that teamwork skills are among the most important learning outcomes for students as they prepare for the workforce (Hart Research Associates 2015).

Despite agreement about teamwork’s value, on campus, the model of the self-reliant, autonomous, independent scholar still predominates. It has been, traditionally, a male model. But higher education is changing, and the model of the autonomous scholar no longer serves us well (see http://thechangingfaculty.org/). Nationally, more than two-thirds of faculty now work off the tenure track (Steiger 2013), with pay levels that are often extremely low (Curtis and Thornton 2013). While data on non-tenure-track faculty are notoriously hard to assemble, women appear to be disproportionally represented among them (Steiger 2013).

These faculty cannot afford to imagine their careers according to the old model of the independent faculty member aiming for and achieving tenure. They might, however, consider how teamwork and collective action can help them advance their own leadership and career growth. Intentional leadership for gender equity in the stratified world of the faculty may in fact be critical to the thriving of the academy. As the faculty change, it will take women’s “full participation” (Sturm et al. 2011) to ensure the well-being of our institutions and hence our thriving as a society.

Below, I offer three approaches to women’s leadership and leadership for gender equity, each of which requires team activity and collective action. These three approaches pursue leadership that is (1) equitable, (2) integrative, and (3) intergenerational.

Equitable Leadership

At AAC&U, we are conducting all our diversity and equity work under the banner of “inclusive excellence” (AAC&U Board of Directors 2013). We expect all our offices, meetings, and programs to apply “equity-mindedness” to our work (Bensimon 2007). Equity requires a principled and ethical approach focused on achieving proportional outcomes. For example, women should have a chance to participate equitably in opportunities; if half of all people are women, women’s achievements should represent half of all achievements. Equity-mindedness in higher education requires evidence-based thinking about disparities and stratification and points toward fair and informed collective action (Witham et al. 2015, 5–8). It demands attention to disparities across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines and across gender lines.

For example, an equity-minded approach might call for action to address profound socioeconomic gaps at the undergraduate level. Students from the poorest families have a 9 percent chance of graduating from college by age twenty-four, while children from the most affluent families have a 77 percent chance (Cahalan and Perna 2015). But as Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski have shown (2011, 16–18), inequalities in educational attainment among women of different socioeconomic statuses have risen far more sharply than those among men. While both men and women have increased their college participation and completion rates and high-income women now outpace all other groups, the attainment gap is much wider between high-income and low-income women than it is between high-income and low-income men. 

Racial and ethnic disparities in college attainment, too, have persisted for decades. As of 2009, 14 percent of African American men and 22 percent of African American women ages twenty-five to twenty-nine held at least a bachelor’s degree. For young Hispanic men and women, these shares were 10 percent and 16 percent, respectively; for young white men and women, they were 32 percent and 40 percent (Kim 2011, 6). Alarmingly, these gaps persist even as the US population is changing. More than four in ten millennials (ages 18–33) already identify themselves as non-white (Taylor 2014); by 2023, the majority of children will identify themselves in groups other than white (Act for Youth 2010). How will gender continue to complicate this picture?

Against the backdrop of changing demographics, gender integration of certain disciplines remains incomplete. Take physics as one example. In 2012, 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in physics were awarded to women, compared with 36 percent of bachelor’s degrees in all science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields (American Physical Society n.d.). In the same year, 20 percent of doctoral degrees in physics were earned by women (American Physical Society n.d.). And at the faculty level, women compose about 13 percent of physics faculty members, a rate lower than for other STEM fields (White and Ivie 2013, 1).

Indeed, across faculty ranks, women are inequitably represented. According to John Curtis, “Women have entered the academic workforce in large numbers during the same period in which contingency”—full- and part-time positions for faculty off the tenure track, sometimes called instructional staff positions—“has emerged as the normative employment situation. Between 1976 and 2009, the number of women in instructional staff positions at degree-granting colleges and universities grew by 266 percent, whereas the number of men employed increased by only 62 percent during the same period” (2013, 29). As Curtis elaborates, women now hold 44 percent of all full-time faculty positions, but they are only 29 percent of full professors. Women full-time faculty members still earn 80 percent of what their male colleagues earn. And these figures do not reflect the truly grim disparities that exist between white women and women of color—who “remain underrepresented and their achievements in the academy almost invisible” (Turner, González, and Wood 2008, 140). In 2005, 1 percent of full professors were black women, 1 percent were Asian women, 0.6 percent were Hispanic women, and 0.1 percent were American Indian women (140).

Within leadership positions, women have “continued to make modest gains in their representation among college presidents, with the proportion of female chief executives rising to 26.4 percent” in 2012 (Lederman 2012). Women’s representation is highest in community colleges, where one-third of presidents are women (Lederman 2012). Clearly, gender equity at the highest leadership ranks does not yet exist. The picture is more complex still when considering the status of women of color in leadership positions. As of 2008, white women held 38 percent of senior administrative positions, while women of color held only 7 percent (Touchton, Musil, and Campbell 2008, 24).

Considering these facts, it’s important to ask: What model are we presenting to our students, both men and women? How can we take an equity-minded approach to improving this picture, looking at multiple categories of difference at once and especially at points of intersection among these categories? Attending to equity means attending to a complex and sometimes clashing tapestry, and we can’t accomplish this work by thinking individualistically. We have to make a collective and intentional approach.

Integrative and Intentional Leadership

In my introduction to this essay, I mentioned AAC&U’s LEAP initiative. LEAP offers a purposeful and intentional approach to student learning based on key points of consensus about the aims of higher education, allowing for leadership and action that is collective but that also respects campus cultures and differences. By focusing on Essential Learning Outcomes (ELOs) that all students should achieve through college, one can discover an amazing array of pathways toward meeting those outcomes. For the purposes of integrating an intentional focus on women and gender across our work in higher education, I want to suggest that we revise the ELOs to put women and gender specifically in view.

The first broad category of ELOs is “knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world … focused by engagement with big questions both contemporary and enduring” (National Leadership Council 2007, 3). Many campuses are taking up big questions on local and global topics: sustainability, human rights, food, health, water. And many big questions involve women and gender. For example, why is there so much violence against women in the United States, with one in four American women experiencing physical domestic violence in her lifetime (Snyder 2013)? And why are far more women in public office in the developing world than in the United States, with Rwanda holding the highest percentage of women in parliament of any country and the United States ranking seventy-fifth (Inter-Parliamentary Union 2014)? We can and should explore big questions related to women and gender in our own educational contexts, disciplines, or offices.

The second broad category of ELOs is “intellectual and practical skills, including inquiry and analysis, critical and creative thinking, written and oral communication, quantitative literacy, information literacy, and teamwork and problem solving” (National Leadership Council 2007, 3). Each of these skills has a rubric associated with it, created through AAC&U’s Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) project (http://www.aacu.org/VALUE/). Each of these rubrics could easily be modified to emphasize women and gender. For example, the teamwork rubric describes the “capstone” performance criterion Facilitates the Contributions of Team Member” as follows: “Engages team members in ways that facilitate their contributions to meetings by both constructively building upon or synthesizing the contributions of others as well as noticing when someone is not participating and inviting them to engage.” What if, instead of mentioning “team members,” this language referred specifically to women? Similarly, we might add four words to the descriptor for the capstone level of “Application/Analysis” in the quantitative literacy VALUE rubric: “Uses the quantitative analysis of data on women and gender as the basis for deep and thoughtful judgments, drawing insightful, carefully qualified conclusions from this work.” The data points I have woven into this article are just one place to start.

The third broad category of ELOs focuses on “personal and social responsibility,” embracing the following learning outcomes (which reflect my modifications): learning about women and gender within the realm of “civic knowledge and engagement—both local and global”; “intercultural knowledge and competence” in matters concerning women and gender; “ethical reasoning and action” focused on women and gender (National Leadership Council 2007, 3).

The fourth and final category of ELOs focuses on “integrative and applied learning … demonstrated through the application of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings and complex problems” (National Leadership Council 2007, 3). We are at this moment living through a period of social awakening to differences that span more than just binary dimensions. What are the real-world implications when new understandings of gender complicate the neat binary barriers of the past? How should institutions, whether same-sex or coeducational, transform themselves now? Simmons College president Helen Drinan’s call for women’s colleges to welcome transgender students opens an array of questions for institutional leaders to explore and address (2014). Students certainly have a stake in this exploration as they apply their knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings. 

Intergenerational Leadership

In order to be equitable, integrative, and intentional, leadership by and for women and across the spectrum of gender must also be intergenerational. This is particularly critical as second-wave feminists of the baby boom generation retire and a different and more diverse demographic of young women moves into adulthood.

I have learned much about the need for intergenerational leadership from my daughter, Hannah. I am a second-wave progressive feminist; Hannah, now a junior in college, is a young leader. Hannah was president of her high school student government—a place where few girls choose to go. Indeed, in the United States, young men are more likely than young women to aspire to a career in politics (Lawless and Fox 2013).

Last year, while preparing for the speech that eventually became this article, I decided to interview Hannah for her perspective on women and gender. I am proud of Hannah, but interviewing her felt risky. I wanted to ask her about “the f-word,” and I knew it would not be easy. And indeed, Hannah said some things that were hard to hear. Of feminism, she said, “That’s your generation. I don’t know a single person who says she’s a feminist.” Hearing this, I tried to keep my genial motherly smile, to refrain from preparing my faithful consciousness-raising counterargument. I decided to do some perspective-taking—to open my ears and listen. What I learned was instructive.

Hannah described seeing feminism as limiting because, in her view, it proposes to build action on a theory of women’s superiority. That sounded at first rather antifeminist. But I believe that Hannah’s ideas suggest something else. She and her friends—male and female, gay and straight along a spectrum—have a fluid understanding of gender and sexuality. They imagine gender identity far more freely and diversely than I did at their age. Moreover, Hannah understands gender as a useful category of analysis—one that she applies flexibly to the women and men in her world, while still understanding the disparities that often disadvantage women as well as the need to address power differentials. She gave examples from her own work as a YMCA camp counselor, where she and her co-counselors take purposeful approaches to empowering twelve-year-old girls.

Listening compassionately to Hannah, I understood her perspective in a way I had not before. I saw that I, as an older white woman, ought to listen with equal compassion to diverse women of other generations. There is good social science research supporting the positive impact of intergroup dialogue (see, for example, Schoem and Hurtado 2001), and the strategies and structures of such dialogue appear promising as ways of engaging intergenerational as well as interracial groups. The United Nations has recognized this in sponsoring an array of events and projects using intergenerational dialogue to address poverty, community development, and the concerns of women—for example, through its Economic Commission for Africa (UN Economic Commission for Africa 2013).

On campuses, intergenerational dialogue can occur between individuals—but more importantly, it can be organized intentionally as community action to encourage tolerance, respect, mutual understanding, and collective effort. Indeed, I believe that intergenerational dialogues across the spectrum of gender and sexuality might be particularly helpful now for faculty, staff, and students.


In the United States, we are witnessing an unsurprising resurgence and accompanying backlash of disorganized public attention to women, sexuality, and gender. The recent spate of stories and fierce disagreement about sexual violence on campus is occurring at a time of unprecedented progress in the legal and social standing of gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals. Women, gender, and sexuality are everywhere in the news. It is possible that a woman will finally be president. But what about women in higher education? What issues demand our leadership—a new kind of plural leadership by women and for gender equity? That is a question on which we should focus our energy. A couple of years ago, Sheryl Sandberg popularized the idea of “leaning in” (2013), and maybe we’ll remember this era as the “lean in” moment. But I confess that my playbook does not say “lean in.” It says reach out together intentionally, across all our differences and boundaries.

As we bear down on evidence, reach out across difference, and aim for positive action, I hope we can be intentional and mindful. Let’s work toward intergenerational connection and equity-mindedness, and take personal action for collective impact. Let’s reach out to others who are unlike us, even if it means negotiating class and cultural differences. Let’s honor and embrace those differences—aware of our collective identities; proud of our capacities to both lead and nurture; using our bright, creative, contrary, and questioning habits of mind together.

Editor’s note: This article is an updated adaptation of a speech given at the annual meeting of Wisconsin Women in Higher Education Leadership on October 23, 2013.


AAC&U Board of Directors. 2013. “Board Statement on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive Excellence,” June 27. http://www.aacu.org/about/statements/2013/diversity.

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Lawless, Jennifer L., and Richard L. Fox. 2013. Girls Just Wanna Not Run: The Gender Gap in Young Americans’ Political Ambition. Washington, DC: Women and Politics Institute.

Lederman, Doug. 2012. “The (Aging) College President.” Inside Higher Ed, March 12. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/03/12/college-presidents-are-older-whiter-more-likely-come-outside-academe#ixzz2fvWX9E00.

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Touchton, Judy, Caryn McTighe Musil, and Kathryn Peltier Campbell. 2008. A Measure of Equity: Women’s Status in Higher Education. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Turner, Caroline Sotello Viernes, Juan Carlos González, and J. Luke Wood. 2008. “Faculty of Color in Academe: What 20 Years of Literature Tells Us.” Diversity in Higher Education 1 (4): 139–68

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White, Susan, and Rachel Ivie. 2013. Number of Women in Physics Departments: A Simulation Analysis. College Park, MD: American Institute of Physics. http://www.aip.org/sites/default/files/statistics/faculty/womenindepts-p-10.pdf.

Witham, Keith, Lindsey E. Malcom-Piqueux, Alicia C. Dowd, and Estela Mara Bensimon. 2015. America’s Unmet Promise: The Imperative for Equity in Higher Education. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Susan Albertine is vice president for diversity, equity, and student success at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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