Leadership Barriers for Women in Higher Education

The first step toward dismantling barriers is understanding what the barriers are in the first place.
Illustration of woman climbing ladder over wall with barbwire at top

These days, just about every college and university has a diversity and inclusion policy. Like similar policies at large corporations, this policy typically lays out the institution’s commitment to hiring and serving a diverse population. It might indicate that the institution is an equal opportunity employer, or that it encourages women and minorities to apply. It all sounds pretty promising, yet recent figures show just how much further we have to go to truly achieve diversity in higher education.

A number of institutional issues in higher education—including in business schools—can negatively affect women’s opportunities to take on leadership roles in the academic community. Overcoming these challenges is only possible when both men and women shoulder the responsibility for increasing diversity in their ranks.

Gender Diversity in Higher Education by the Numbers

According to the American Council on Education’s (ACE) American College President Study 2017, only 30 percent of the nation’s college and university presidents are women—an increase of just four percentage points since 2011. Further, findings from a report on the status of women in higher education show that, although women now earn the majority of all college degrees and are well represented in entry- and mid-level positions in most economic sectors, they have made surprisingly little progress in advancing to chief executive positions anywhere, including in higher education. A closer look at the numbers helps illustrate the higher ed gender landscape:

  • Male university presidents are more likely to be married and have children than their female counterparts. They’re also less likely to have changed their career path to care for someone else, like a spouse or parent.
  • Thirty-two percent of full professor positions at degree-granting institutions in the U.S. were held by women in 2015.
  • For nearly 20 years, the number of female members on institutional governing boards has remained at or near 30 percent.

If we look globally, and at business schools specifically, the picture is still rather grim:

  • According to data from AACSB’s 2017–18 Staff Compensation & Demographics Survey of member schools globally, just 25.2 percent of deans, 33.7 percent of associate deans, and 26.2 percent of academic department chairs in business schools are women.
  • Full-time faculty within business schools are also overwhelmingly male, according to the same survey, with women outnumbering their male counterparts only in the areas of business communication (64.4 percent) and business education (61.4 percent).
  • A further breakdown of the data shows that only 22 percent of all business school faculty at the professor level—which has the largest gender gap—are women. The smallest gender gap is at the instructor level, where women occupy 40.3 percent of these positions.

How Stereotypes and Unconscious Bias Impact Women Leaders

Unconscious bias and stereotyping exist in every organization. The first step toward dismantling the barriers that these harmful ideas create is understanding what the barriers are in the first place.

Women are still seen as caregivers. It’s one of the oldest stereotypes, and it’s still holding women back from advancing in the workplace. According to the ACE report on college presidents, 32 percent of women presidents altered their career progression to care for a dependent, compared to 16 percent of men.

The academic career ladder—virtually unchanged for hundreds of years—does not account for the reality that many women are still expected to have caregiving roles for their spouses, children, and elderly parents. These additional responsibilities and time-consuming tasks can be a drag on women's career mobility.

Reduced administrative support leads to increased work for women employees. In recent years, academic departments at many institutions have reduced administrative support roles, with the rationale that the increase of technology and automation has improved efficiencies and rendered such positions superfluous.

However, much of the service work still needs to be done, and women faculty and administrators often find themselves falling in line with gender-role stereotypes, creating tasks that are traditionally undertaken by secretaries and administrative assistants. Whether conscious or not, these assumptions of female academic leaders unfairly affect their workload and subtly undermine their authority. Only at the senior levels of academia—i.e., mainly among male administrators and faculty—do administrative support roles still exist.

Service work: fulfilling but not necessarily career-advancing. Women are assigned and take on more service work than their male counterparts, including committee involvement; formal and informal advising roles; professional service work; and various events related to student life, admissions, and school organizations.

Colleges and universities often do this as part of an effort to correct a gender imbalance in institutional leadership, which in itself is a positive goal; however, these tasks do not necessarily lead to the same kind of career advancement opportunities as the more highly valued and rewarded activities like scholarship or leadership initiatives do.

Consider the University of Glasgow, for example. A recent Inside Higher Ed article highlights mixed feelings about the university’s decision to require at least one woman on the doctoral examination panel for all female PhD students. On the surface, it looks like a well-intentioned move to improve the school’s gender balance on such examination panels; however, as one university professor observes, because there are already so few women at the senior academic level, this move would result in more women needing to give up their time for more “unrecognized and unrewarded” academic duties.

Likewise, women often are expected to serve as role models for other women who have less experience in their careers or academic fields. For example, female students tend to seek out female professors for advice and help, and young women faculty or administrators need the mentoring of more senior women. While women want to and will help other women, it takes up more time with little or no professional reward.

Conversely, male academics on average are not subjected to the same type of institutional pressure, allowing them to spend more time working in areas that are rewarded and help them advance in their careers.

Who Is Responsible for Increasing Diversity?

When it comes to increasing diversity on campus, this effort almost automatically falls to women. The expectation that women are better equipped than men to increase diversity is rooted in gender norms and assumptions; women leaders often are seen as more able to listen to a variety of perspectives and better honor diversity because they have experienced discrimination, loss of opportunity, powerlessness, and stereotyping themselves.

And while there are good intentions behind the push to increase diversity, women should be able to decide how actively they want to participate in these efforts, rather than being pressured to do so in a disproportionate way.

Creating Paths to Leadership for Women

Here are five ways business schools can improve the paths to leadership for the women in their programs:

  1. Confront your school’s gender diversity issue head on. Without a baseline understanding of the current situation, it’s difficult to effect any real change. Gather information and listen to female faculty members and senior leaders. Improving gender diversity requires the work of all members of a team, not just women. To that end, challenge the assumption that women automatically want to be actively involved in improving gender diversity and inclusiveness.
  2. Set strategic, institution-wide objectives on the subject of gender and cultural diversity. To reach these objectives, consider committing to a program such as CEO Action, in which member organizations and companies pledge to “advance diversity and inclusion within the workplace.” More than 50 U.S. colleges and universities are among the 150 organizations that have already taken the pledge, including AACSB International.
  3. Improve career mobility options for women and establish a more family-friendly work environment. For example, avoid scheduling meetings at times that create disproportionate burdens for women with caregiving roles, such as early morning or evenings.
  4. Set up differentiated contracts that allow for individuals to focus on service more than scholarship, if that is their preference. The valuable service work that many women undertake within higher education settings should not go unnoticed or unrewarded.
  5. Offer an increased number of formal mentoring and leadership development opportunities for women. As stated earlier, women often already take on the work of mentorship, and formalized programs that encourage, support, and reward this work can only benefit both mentors and mentees.

While the needle is moving slowly toward better gender diversity in business schools and other university programs, insidious influences and unconscious bias remain in place for the majority of would-be women leaders in higher education. The problem does not only impact women; it also impacts the ability of colleges and universities to draw on different perspectives to make better decisions. In order to effect real change, gender diversity should be as important to men on campus as it is to women, and the burden of improving gender diversity should not rest solely on the shoulders of women. Only with courageous women and men can we see the discrepancy of gender leadership in higher education shift to become more balanced.


Headshot of Susan Bartel, associate professor of Online Higher Education Leadership at Maryville UniversitySusan Bartel teaches as an associate professor of Online Higher Education Leadership at Maryville University. She previously served as a business school dean at Stephens College and has studied and presented on gender and leadership topics.