Diversity and Democracy

Gender and the Ladder to the Deanship

A 2009 article proclaimed of women’s underrepresentation in academic administration, “It’s no longer a pipeline issue” (Dominici, Fried, and Zeger 2009, 25). But the reality is more complicated. While close to 60 percent of college students are women (NCES 2013), slightly more than a quarter of full professors (Ward and Eddy 2013) and just over 25 percent of presidents (Cook 2012) are female. The position of college dean is a key pathway to the role of provost, which in turn is a prime stepping-stone to the university presidency (Cook 2012). Thus, women’s underrepresentation among senior faculty and as deans may contribute to continuing disparities at the executive levels of academic leadership. 

The Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences (CCAS) has more than five hundred four-year member institutions, represented within the association by over seven hundred academic deans. By plumbing the professional pathways of these deans, we hoped to take advantage of a rare opportunity to examine gender-related patterns in academic administrative careers at a national level. In spring 2013, we conducted a web-based survey designed to surface differences by gender, if any, in these deans’ career paths, anticipated next career steps, and long-term career aspirations.

Personal and Family Characteristics

Approximately 30 percent of the organization’s sitting deans—212 respondents—provided usable responses to the survey. Of these, 83 (39 percent) were women and 129 (61 percent) were men. (Within CCAS, roughly one-third of deans are women.) Approximately 9 percent of respondents self-identified as ethnic or racial minorities. Seventy-eight percent of female respondents reported being married or in a long-term partnership, with 71 percent indicating that they had children under age eighteen living at home. For men, these proportions were greater: 94 percent of male deans reported being married or partnered, and 88 percent indicated living with children under age eighteen.

Roughly half of all respondents, regardless of gender, reported either that they had left a job for the sake of a partner’s career, or that a partner had done so for them. Deans’ partners were more likely than deans to have made such accommodations, with 42 percent of women and 37 percent of men reporting that their partner had left a job in service to their career. Thirteen percent of deans who are women had left a job in support of a partner’s career as compared with 7 percent of men who reported having done so.

Pathways to the Deanship

The average age at which the deans had earned their highest degrees was similar for men (30.4 years) and women (30.9 years). Overall, slightly more than half of respondents had earned degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, although this was more often the case for men (56 percent) than for women (48 percent).

Male respondents were more likely to be employed at a doctoral or research institution than women (38 percent of men versus 20 percent of women), while women were overrepresented at master’s-granting institutions relative to men (68 percent of women versus 52 percent of men). The difference in representation at baccalaureate-granting institutions was smaller: 10 percent of male respondents and 12 percent of female respondents reported working at baccalaureate-granting institutions.

More than half of women respondents became dean in 2010 or later; the majority of men were initially named dean between 2005 and 2009. On average, respondents were first appointed dean about twenty years after earning their highest degrees (20.6 years for men and 19.6 years for women). The number of positions (title changes) did not vary significantly by gender (7.3 for women versus 7.5 for men), nor did the number of title changes predict the average number of years before becoming dean. Across genders, disciplinary background mattered: those from STEM disciplines took longer (21.0 years) to reach the position of dean than those from other disciplines (19.1 years).

Common wisdom suggests that in comparison to men, women more often take on administrative positions before achieving full professor rank, and that they consequently hit a glass ceiling at lower levels of academic administration (see, for example, Ward and Eddy 2013). But among respondents, fewer than 10 percent of either gender (9 percent of women and 6 percent of men) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “Looking back on my career path, I wish I had remained as a faculty member longer.” A gap between men and women did emerge in response to a second prompt: “I did not actively seek out my first academic administrative position.” Here, 73 percent of women agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, compared with 57 percent of men.  

Leadership Plans and Ambitions

When asked to think about their next career step, the deans most commonly responded by indicating a desire to be provost or chief academic officer (with 37 percent of women and 39 percent of men citing this response). Thirty-seven percent of women and 41 percent of men indicated that they intended to remain at their current institution when taking that next step. However, women were much less likely than men to be willing to relocate geographically, with 59 percent of women and only 41 percent of men indicating agreement or strong agreement with the statement, “When thinking of my next career step, I am committed to staying in my current geographical location.”

When considering long-term career aspirations, another noticeable difference by gender emerged. The percentage of men and women articulating the desire to become a provost or chief academic officer over the long term was fairly similar: twenty-five percent of women and 22 percent of men. However, women were much less likely to conceive of themselves as a president at some time in the future. Only 13 percent of women anticipated becoming a president, compared with 30 percent of men.


Our survey confirmed a discrepancy in proportion of representation, suggesting that the pipeline issue has not been resolved. There was surprisingly little difference among the deans as a whole demographically: they are largely white and overwhelmingly live with a partner and with children under eighteen. Because the personal characteristics and career paths of respondents did not differ by gender as much as we had expected, it was difficult to draw conclusions about how different circumstances might affect progression to the deanship.

At the same time, women are more likely than men to be single, and a larger percentage of women than men are parents, although fewer women than men have children under eighteen living at home. Further, that women reported being more likely to have partners who made career accommodations in support of the woman’s career and to have made accommodations themselves in support of a partner’s career hints at women having to navigate more complex paths to administrative positions than their male counterparts. But it is worth noting that the deans we surveyed were those who had successfully climbed the administrative ladder. We do not have the data to determine whether or what personal circumstances may have mediated against reaching the deanship in the first place.

Where we did find differences between the pathways taken by women and men, they can be characterized as follows: women deans were less likely than men to have aspired to an academic leadership position. They were more likely than men to have been recruited rather than to have volunteered. And they indicated less interest in ascending to the presidency than did men. Women deans seem also to be more place-bound, or at least less likely to consider relocating for their career advancement. These findings reinforce the importance of mentorship and sponsorship for both identifying and supporting women who will assume leadership roles in the academy.


Cook, Bryan J. 2012. “The American College President Study: Key Findings and Takeaways.” The Presidency (Spring Supplement). American Council on Education (ACE). http://www.acenet.edu/the-presidency/columns-and-features/Pages/The-American-College-President-Study.aspx.

Dominici, Francesca, Linda P. Fried, and Scott L. Zeger. 2009. “So Few Women Leaders.” Academe 95 (4): 25–27.

NCES (National Center for Education Statistics). 2013. Table 303.60: Total fall enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by level of enrollment, sex of students, and other selected characteristics: 2012. http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d13/tables/dt13_303.60.asp.

Ward, Kelly, and Pamela L. Eddy. 2013. “Women and Academic Leadership: Leaning Out.” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 9. http://chronicle.com/article/WomenAcademic-Leadership-/143503/.

Michelle Behr is provost and dean of the college at Birmingham-Southern College; and Jennifer Schneider is learning research analyst at Colorado State University.

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