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Double Jeopardy: Examining the Low Representation of Women in Top Leadership Positions in Higher Education

The lack of women in leadership positions in higher education results in part from the same influences that have created the “glass ceiling” in the corporate world. These influences include pipeline issues and life choice constraints, which impede women progressing through the many career stages required in preparation for a high intensity, high-profile leadership position. However, I am specifically interested in a different factor that may impact women’s participation in academic governance: the bias toward scholars from certain disciplines in leadership hires.

There are many statistics on the low representation of women in academia. For this study I chose to focus on the leaders of the most highly ranked universities both worldwide and in the United States. Within the World Top 20 (2013-2014), 10 percent of the presidents and vice chancellors are women and, still more disappointing, none of the Asian universities featured in the World Top 50 have a woman leader. Analysis of the subjects in which these leaders had obtained their PhD showed a very uneven distribution of disciplines, with STEM disciplines most highly represented (notably engineering), followed by politics and law, social sciences, and humanities. There were no leaders from the arts in any of the universities investigated.


Figure 1. Discipline of the highest degree of the presidents/vice chancellors of universities ranked in the World Top 20 and the Asian Universities in the World Top 50.

Rankings taken from Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013-2014, Presidents’ disciplines obtained from the university websites.



In a larger sample, analysis of the scholarly disciplines of the presidents and provosts (or equivalent) of the research universities listed in the US News & World Report Top 50 gave a very similar result. In this case, 17 percent of the leaders (24 percent of presidents and 10 percent of provosts) are women.


Figure 2. Discipline of the highest degree of the presidents and provosts of US universities ranked in the top 50 in the US News & World Report.

Rankings taken from US News & World Report research university rankings,, accessed 2/26/14. Presidents’ and provosts’ disciplines obtained from the university websites.


Remarkably, the preference for certain disciplines is even more marked than is evident in these figures. Within the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines, there is a very disproportionate number of engineers, while the social scientists are mainly economists and the humanists are nearly all philosophers.


Figure 3. Discipline of the highest degree of the women presidents and provosts of US universities ranked in the top 50 in the US News and World Report.


The disciplines of the women who are currently presidents and provosts of US top 50 research universities mirror those of the men. The slightly higher proportion of female administrators with a background in social and political science might be explained by the fact that several women university presidents were high-profile politicians who have left office. I believe the higher percentage of women presidents than provosts can also be explained by this hiring practice.

I believe this data contributes to an understanding of why there are so few women in higher education leadership. It is important to remember that the current occupants of leading roles in academia are at the apex of their careers and probably completed their PhDs between the late 1970s and the early ‘90s. There was serious gender imbalance in the recipients of PhDs in most disciplines at that time. Of the disciplines shown in Figure 4, only English had an equal number of men and women obtaining PhDs in 1981-82 and 1991-92, while the disciplines most likely to yield presidents and provosts (STEM) had the lowest percentages of women.


Figure 4. Percentage of women recipients of PhDs in certain disciplines in given years 1971-2011

Data collected from the National Center for Education Statistics “Digest of Education Statistics,”


While there have been tremendous strides made in the representation of women in all disciplines over the last fifty years, when considering high-level academic leadership the data presented here give serious cause for concern. If the hiring bias towards those from the STEM disciplines, particularly engineering, for academic leaders continues, we are not going to have equitable pools of male and female candidates in the next fifty years. Thus, excluding all other factors that might affect the availability of qualified female candidates for leadership positions, the discipline bias alone will prevent gender parity. Hiring committees would need to start favoring candidates from disciplines with higher percentages of women than men (literature, languages, arts, social psychology etc.) equally to the male-dominated disciplines to get equitable representation of women in leadership roles.

This raises what I believe is a fundamental question: Why are scholars from certain fields over-represented amongst academic leadership? What is the cause of this bias?

There are special cases that can be excluded. A few of the top research universities (MIT and CalTech, for example) are primarily science and engineering schools, and one would expect the leadership to come from STEM disciplines. However, taking these cases out of the analysis does not make much difference.

Might there be reasons why someone trained in a certain discipline would be particularly well prepared for academic leadership?  Relevant skill training might well explain the preponderance of lawyers and economists, but if useful skills are behind the discipline bias, surely having expertise in management or educational psychology is potentially just as relevant? Conversely, what exactly is it about a PhD in engineering that prepares someone for academic leadership?

Finally, is it significant that the fields from which the highest percentages of academic leaders are drawn correspond so neatly with those that have fewest women? Is there really an underlying lack of respect in academia for the disciplines that are preferred by women?  This conclusion is supported in the anecdotal data presented in a report commissioned by the British Council. The report indicates that “selection committees, often made up of men with degrees in the ‘hard sciences’, tend to look down on academics with ‘softer’ degrees.”[1]

My personal experience as a molecular geneticist, who ventures into applied ethics and gender studies, is that academics in disciplines that seem opaque to the layperson are automatically given more respect than those in disciplines where everyone can potentially have an opinion. For example, a conservative  (male) historian would never dream of questioning the research of an internationally acclaimed aeronautical engineer, but he might well think he could put forward an opposing viewpoint to an equally well-respected (female) gender studies scholar. Scholars in disciplines like STEM and economics command a respect that is not so readily given to their colleagues in humanities and arts. The fact that this inequity in respect for disciplines aligns with the proportion of women in these disciplines is highly problematic and directly affects the representation women in academic leadership positions.

Despite recent improvements in the number of women progressing through the STEM pipeline, there are still serious and continuing inequities in the representation of women in STEM faculty positions particularly at the senior level and/or at the most prestigious institutions.[2][3] Thus, women academics who aspire to leadership positions face a form of “double jeopardy”; they must first overcome all the obstacles to succeed in one of the disciplines in which they would be most likely to become an academic leader, for if they choose a more gender-friendly discipline, they are highly unlikely to be chosen for academic leadership. There are many issues that must be addressed in order to increase the representation of women in higher education leadership and discipline bias is one that is not receiving sufficient attention at present.


Jinnie M. Garrett is the dean of natural sciences and mathematics at Ferrum College in Ferrum, Virginia.


[1] The British Council, “Where are the Women? Analysing trends in higher education management on Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka” (British Council, 2014).

[2]  A.M. Penner, “Gender Inequality in Science,” Science, 347(6219): 234-235, 2015.

[3] A. Clauset, S. Arbesman, and D.B. and Larremore. “Systemic Inequality and Hierarchy in Facuty Hiring Networks” Sci. Adv. 2-15;1:e1400005