A Call for Transformative Leadership: Addressing the Lack of Female Full Professors in STEM at HBCUs

Women faculty are underrepresented at the senior professorial and administrative levels of many institutions (Nelson and Rogers 2003; Xu 2008; Riskin et al. 2007). Often, this gap between men and women in the academy (fig. 1) has been attributed to factors such as “chilly” work climates, gender and sexual harassment, and exclusion by male colleagues (Spreitzer, Kizilos, and Nason 1997; Mack et al. 2010). Women experience pay inequities (Currie and Hill 2012; Renzulli, Grant, and Kathuria 2006; Porter, Toutkoushian, and Moore 2008); inequitable teaching, advisory, and service assignments (Dubeck and Borman 1996); and inadequate mentoring (Granovetter 1983; Sabatier, Carrere, and Mangematin 2006). Individually, any of these phenomena would negatively impact the career progression of a faculty member. Taken in concert, these phenomena create workplace environments that are particularly inequitable and hazardous to women.

Women faculty at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) experience these inequitable conditions with some additional complexities (Renzulli, Grant, and Kathuria 2006; Bonner 2001; Minor 2004). The mission of HBCUs has historically been, and continues to be, educating Black Americans. The focus of HBCUs on advancing minorities has, in many ways, limited discussions on the status and success of women faculty (Mack et al. 2010; Renzulli, Grant, and Kathuria 2006; Bonner and Thomas 2001). While women faculty at HBCUs experience some of the same conditions as women in other US colleges and universities (fig. 1), gender-related issues have been silenced on many HBCU campuses.


HBCUs play a critical role within US higher education (Mack, Rankins, and Woodson 2013; Mack et al. 2010; Mack, Rankins, and Winston 2011), especially within the STEM disciplines. These institutions make up only 3 percent of US colleges and universities but produce over 20 percent of African American scientists and engineers (Mack, Rankins, and Woodson 2013). Women faculty in STEM are significant contributors to HBCU student success, even under the aforementioned conditions, which are often not conducive to their advancement in the academy. Notably, the gender disparity among full professors has been widely reported nationally, but little work has been done to investigate these numbers at HBCUs. Given the record of HBCUs in producing STEM talent, and the high enrollment of women students at many HBCUs, the lack of women STEM faculty at the highest faculty and leadership ranks at HBCUs begs to be examined.

Theoretical Framework

The theory of gendered organizations is central to the theoretical framework guiding this article. This theory posits that systemic inequities persist because they are built into systems of work organizations (Acker 1990), particularly in industries “characterized by long-term security, standardized career pathways, and management-controlled evaluations” (Williams, Muller, and Kilanski 2012, 574). Academia is a quintessential example of a gendered organization. The academic tenure system, with its standardized career ladder (assistant professor, associate professor, full professor) and prescriptive tenure review processes, follows a rigorous pathway that positions most academic institutions as gender exclusive and more favorable to men.

In “Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations,” Joan Acker argues that organizational structures are inherently male dominant (1990). Positioning organizations, such as universities, as gender neutral misrepresents the realities of the departmental and university climates in which women faculty work. Gender represents more than biology. Gender in organizations is reflected in how decisions are made and the processes that govern the departmental cultures in which faculty reside and navigate their work. Gender is realized through processes like the division of labor, including teaching and service assignments, access to leadership roles, voice, and organizational logic, which rationalizes collegial hierarchies and legitimizes decision-making (Acker 1990; Williams, Muller, and Kilanski 2012). Academic STEM disciplines, consisting of primarily male-dominated fields, have cultural norms embedded in the disciplines that favor men. HBCUs, with historical foci on social justice and racial equality, have more oft than not underestimated the gendered realities in their hallowed halls.

Our study explores the composition of the STEM professoriate in HBCUs as gendered organizations. Additionally, it seeks to understand gendered organizational dynamics in institutions experiencing mission creep. In her 2013 article, “Faculty Sensemaking and Mission Creep: Interrogating Institutionalized Ways of Knowing and Doing Legitimacy,” Leslie Gonzales investigates the perspectives of faculty members at regional and teaching colleges and universities who find that their institutions, over time, are adopting a more research-intensive structure. Many HBCUs are experiencing similar changes in mission. While HBCUs were traditionally chartered to educate former slaves and their children as teachers and pastors, they have grown to offer comprehensive studies across diverse disciplines. Many HBCUs have expanded their research capacity and transitioned their hiring and evaluation processes to reward high research activity, even in instances where the needs of their students have not dramatically changed over time. These institutions have transitioned from a primarily teaching focus to a research focus and have selected aspirational institutions that are not well aligned with the HBCU historical mission. Women faculty, who have traditionally taken on more service assignments, are vulnerable in institutional systems that increasingly devalue such activities. This introduces a complex tension in which “women’s” academic work is needed by institutions, but women faculty who opt to do this work are penalized for it in hiring and promotion.


This study selected a sample of six HBCUs representing the diversity among HBCUs: private and public institutions, single-gendered and coeducational institutions, institutions with a range of undergraduate students and science and math faculty, institutions with some research/doctoral focus, and institutions that are exclusively undergraduate. We collected, from their websites, data on the numbers of STEM female and male professors at the assistant, associate, and full professor ranks.


Our data show that, overall, there is a greater representation of males than females in the science and math disciplines at each faculty rank (fig. 2). For consistency among institutions, psychology and engineering programs are not included in these data. Of the total faculty at the six institutions combined, males represent 64 percent of assistant professors, 61 percent of associate professors, and 86 percent of full professors. Males make up 70 percent or more of assistant professors at each institution, with only two exceptions. Institution Three has a slightly lower percentage of males than the other institutions. The STEM faculty at Institution Five is predominately female, with 69 percent female assistant professors and 64 percent female associate professors. Without exception, women comprise a vastly lower percentage of the full professors at all the institutions, averaging less than 17 percent. Institutions Four and Six have no female full professors in their science and math departments.


Although the faculty at Institution Five is predominately female at the assistant and associate ranks, it is seemingly unable to make gains for women at the rank of full professor. Overall, in Institution Five the STEM faculty is 59 percent female and 41 percent male. Of the male STEM faculty, 29 percent are full professors while only 4 percent of all female STEM faculty hold this rank.

The low rates at which women are promoted to full professor may be linked to their heavy service and teaching commitments that do not align with the institutions’ movement toward more research-intensive structures. Also not heavily weighted in promotion decisions is the work that some women do in mentoring and teaching, and even publishing their pedagogical work. A fuller understanding of the specific reasons for the gender disparity requires a deeper analysis.


Given the increasing enrollment of females at many colleges and universities, there is a need for more equitable representation of females among the STEM faculty. Women currently make up 56 percent of students at colleges and universities nationwide, and that number is expected to increase in the next five years (National Center for Education Statistics, “Fast Facts: Enrollment,” n.d.). This is even more evident at HBCUs, where women are 61 percent of the student population (National Center for Education Statistics, “Fast Facts: Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” n.d.). HBCUs are the leading producers of Black students who receive PhDs in the STEM disciplines, even though only 9 percent of Black undergraduates attend HBCUs (National Center for Education Statistics, “Fast Facts: Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” n.d.). Given the role of HBCUs in producing STEM talent and the high enrollment of women at many of these institutions, an effort to address the disparate advancement of women STEM faculty to the highest faculty ranks is warranted.

Ultimately, HBCUs will need to develop strategies to work toward transforming these numbers, and this can only be done with effective leadership. Higher education organizations seeking to address gender inequities need to reframe traditional decision-making processes to make them more inclusive. Bolman and Deal, in their book Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, identify four frames that leaders can use to address organizational issues and change: structural, human resource, political, and symbolic (2017, 30). Bolman and Deal argue that effective leadership requires flexibility and the ability to adopt, when appropriate, the frame that most benefits the needs of the institution (48). All four of these frames provide a context through which HBCUs can address the change that is needed to ensure that women progress at equitable rates to the highest levels of the professoriate. Figure 3 provides a structure for how each leadership frame can contribute to eliminating gender disparity and unequal promotion rates at HBCUs.


The structural frame seeks to develop processes within the institution that alleviate gender disparity. This includes intentionally analyzing and restructuring tenure requirements to be aligned with institutional missions, paying women equitably for the contributions they make that add value to the institution, allocating resources to support the research capacity and leadership development of women, and developing recruitment efforts that target women.

The human resource frame recognizes the need for institutions to view employees as individuals with varying needs, especially given the gendered roles that exist within the context of society and work. A more inclusive institutional culture is one that provides training for faculty and administrators on gender bias and difference and that values work/life balance and the roles that employees have outside of the institution.

The political frame leverages the collective power of like-minded people to recognize the benefit of women in leadership roles at the institution. Key stakeholders, including faculty and administrators, can work synergistically to develop strategies that eliminate gender inequities and barriers to promotion. Such strategies may include celebrating the success of women leaders at the institution and strategically placing women in leadership positions that are meaningful. For example, positions on the institution’s governing board could be reserved for women. Although gender cannot be considered when making hires, laws do not impact the composition of boards since these positions are not considered employment (Guy, Niethammer, and Moline 2011).

The symbolic frame places the mission of the institution at the forefront of decision-making processes and recognizes the importance of symbols in establishing a collective vision for the institution. Hence, reward structures should align with institutional missions. Institutions should also recognize the importance of having women in leadership positions and the message that is sent to others, especially students, when their presence is limited in these roles.

These strategies, in concert, provide a framework through which HBCUs can address the low numbers of female STEM faculty at the highest academic ranks at these institutions. The hope is that these strategies, if properly devised, will be transformative and long lasting and will provide a model for other academic institutions to follow.



Acker, Joan. 1990. “Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations.” Gender & Society 4 (2): 139−158.

Bolman, Lee G., and Terrance E. Deal. 2017. Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Bonner, Florence B. 2001. “Addressing Gender Issues in the Historically Black College and University Community: A Challenge and Call to Action.” The Journal of Negro Education 70 (3): 176−191.

Bonner, Florence B., and Veronica G. Thomas. 2001. “Introduction and Overview: New and Continuing Challenges and Opportunities for Black Women in the Academy.” The Journal of Negro Education 70 (3): 121−123.

Currie, Jan, and Beverley Hill. 2012. “Gendered Universities and the Wage Gap: Case Study of a Pay Equity Audit in an Australian University.” Higher Education Policy 26 (1): 65−82.

Dubeck, Paula J., and Kathryn M. Borman. 1996. Women and Work: A Handbook. Abingdon, UK: Taylor & Francis.

Fassinger, Ruth E., Kathryn Scantlebury, and Geraldine Richmond. 2004. “Career, Family, and Institutional Variables in the Work Lives of Academic Women in the Chemical Sciences.” Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering 10 (4), 297–316.

Gonzales, Leslie D. 2013. “Faculty Sensemaking and Mission Creep: Interrogating Institutionalized Ways of Knowing and Doing Legitimacy.” The Review of Higher Education 36 (2): 179−209.

Granovetter, Mark. 1983. “The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited.” Sociological Theory 1 (1): 201–233.

Guy, Marie-Laurence, Carmen Niethammer, and Ann Moline, eds. 2011. Women on Boards: A Conversation with “Male” Directors. Washington, DC: International Finance Corporation.

Mack, Kelly M., Linda R. Johnson, Kamilah M. Woodson, Alan Henkin, and Jay R. Dee. 2010. “Empowering Women Faculty in STEM Fields: An Examination of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering 16 (4): 319–341.

Mack, Kelly M., Claudia M. Rankins, and Cynthia E. Winston. 2011. “Black Women Faculty at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Perspectives for a National Imperative.” Diversity in Higher Education 11: 149–164.

Mack, Kelly M., Claudia M. Rankins, and Kamilah Woodson. 2013. “From Graduate School to the STEM Workforce: An Entropic Approach to Career Identity Development for STEM Women of Color.” New Directions for Higher Education (163): 23–34.

Minor, James T. 2004. “Introduction: Decision Making in Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Defining the Governance Context.” Journal of Negro Education 73 (1): 40–52.

Moore, Gwen. 1990. “Structural Determinants of Men’s and Women’s Personal Networks.” American Sociological Review 55 (5): 726–735.

National Center for Education Statistics. n.d. “Fast Facts: Enrollment.” Accessed on May 1, 2019. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=98.

National Center for Education Statistics. n.d. “Fast Facts: Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” Accessed on May 1, 2019. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=667.

Nelson, Donna J., and Diane C. Rogers. 2003. A National Analysis of Diversity in Science and Engineering Faculties at Research Universities. New York: National Organization for Women.

Porter, Stephen R., Robert K. Toutkoushian, and John V. Moore III. 2008. “Pay Inequities for Recently Hired Faculty, 1988–2004.” Review of Higher Education 31 (4): 465–487.

Renzulli, Linda A., Linda Grant, and Sheetija Kathuria. 2006. “Race, Gender, and the Wage Gap: Comparing Faculty Salaries in Predominately White and Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” Gender & Society 20 (4): 491–510.

Riskin, Eve, Kate Quinn, Joyce Yen, Coleen Carrigan, and Elizabeth Litzler. 2007. “The ADVANCE Mentoring-for-Leadership Lunch Series for Women Faculty in STEM at the University of Washington.” Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering 13 (3), 191–206.

Sabatier, Mareva, Myriam Carrere, and Vincent Mangematin. 2006. “Profiles of Academic Activities and Careers: Does Gender Matter? An Analysis Based on French Life Scientist CVs.” Journal of Technology Transfer 31 (3): 311−324.

Settles, Isis H., Lilia M. Cortina, Janet Malley, and Abigail J. Stewart. 2006. “The Climate for Women in Academic Science: The Good, the Bad, and the Changeable.” Psychology of Women Quarterly. 30 (1): 47−58.

Spreitzer, Gretchen M., Mark A. Kizilos, and Stephen W. Nason. 1997. “A Dimensional Analysis of the Relationship between Psychological Empowerment and Effectiveness, Satisfaction, and Strain.” Journal of Management 23 (5): 679−704.

Williams, Christine L., Chandra Muller, and Kristine Kilanski. 2012. “Gendered Organizations in the New Economy.” Gender & Society 26 (4): 549−573.

Xu, Yonghong J. 2008. “Gender Disparity in STEM Disciplines: A Study of Faculty Attrition and Turnover Intentions.” Research in Higher Education 49 (7): 607−624.

Monica Stephens, Associate Professor of Mathematics, Chair of Mathematics Department, Spelman College; and  Zakiya S. Wilson-Kennedy, Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, College of Science; Associate Professor of Research, Chemistry Education, Louisiana State University

Select any filter and click on Apply to see results