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The Status of Women in Higher Education in 2016

Posted by  Jami Morshed

For female academics, a career in higher education is often fraught with pitfalls such as gender-based discrimination, pay inequities, sexual harassment and barriers to professional advancement. While groups around the country are working to make it easier for women to thrive in higher-education positions, the difficulties persist. Read on to learn more.

The Myth of the Pipeline

To understand the difficulties women face in the world of higher education, it's critical to understand The Myth of the Pipeline, which states that the reason women are so underrepresented in higher education is that too few women hold the advanced degrees necessary to qualify them for prestigious leadership positions.

Despite what the Myth of the Pipeline might state, however, recent data proves that an ample number of qualified women are available to fill the nation's higher-education leadership roles. What's more, the pipeline is preparing women for leadership positions at a faster rate than it is preparing men. As it stands now, women have earned upwards of half of all doctoral degrees granted since 2006 and half of all masters' degrees awarded since 1991, which proves that women are qualified and prepared to step into higher-education leadership roles.

The Current State of Women in Higher Education

One of the most powerful pieces of information about the topic of women in higher education is the Higher Ed Spotlight titled "Pipelines, Pathways, and Institutional Leadership: an Update on the Status of Women in Higher Education" published by the American Council on Education. This report follows up the 2009 release of The White House Project: Benchmarking Women's Leadership report, which took a close look at the leadership roles women played in 10 key sectors of the United States workforce. 

The original 2009 report found that, while women account for more than 50 percent of all college students, they represent only 25 percent of professors and less than 15 percent of the total number of university presidents at colleges that grant doctoral degrees. What's more, the report found that women in higher education made only 82 percent of the salary that male higher-education professionals made in 2009. The recent Higher Ed Spotlight seeks to revisit these statistics and find out where progress has been achieved if it has, indeed, been made.

Despite the fact that many women hold advanced degrees, women account for only 31 percent of full professors at postsecondary institutions. In fact, the higher one goes in the educational system, the fewer women are present. This is especially noticeable in the case of women of color, who are outranked by men of color for full professor positions.

This phenomenon, known as "the higher, the fewer," states that, although women hold more degrees, and more prestigious degrees, than men, there is a significant discrepancy in the number of women enmeshed in advanced positions with seniority and large salaries in the world of higher education.

Men's Pay vs. Women's Pay in Higher Education

Anyone doubting the unfair structure of higher education need only to turn an eye to pay. Between 2013 and 2014, male professors earned an average yearly salary of $82,528, while women professors earned only $70,355, representing a discrepancy of $15,173 each year. This difference is even more marked at private institutions. The issue of pay is a vast and far-reaching one in higher education: Regardless of the position they hold, men are more likely to be on the tenure track and make more money than their female counterparts. One way to keep track of these differences today is by extracting the data from modern student management systems.

The Number of Women Holding Presidential Roles

While women are dramatically underrepresented in professor positions, many people assume they're more likely to hold presidential roles at postsecondary institutions. In fact, while the number of women in regulatory roles has increased since 1986, women today still only hold 27 percent of all presidential roles in higher-education institutions. This despite the fact that women are statistically less likely to be married or have children (two factors that are often perceived as holding women back from pursuing prestigious career paths) than their male presidential counterparts.

Women as Chief Academic Officers

The number of women serving as Chief Academic Officers (CAOs) declined between 2008 and 2013 across all public doctoral, degree-granting institutions. Where female CAOs do exist, they are primarily unmarried and do not have children, while their male counterparts do. What's more, men outnumber women on governing boards across higher education by a rank of 2 to 1. Currently, the number of women on governing boards is stalled at roughly 30 percent, where it's been sitting for 20 years.

The Solution

Despite widespread awareness of the issues in higher education, female professionals haven't seen the level of initiative or action needed to make higher education an inclusive and fair place. As it stands now, The ACE Division of Leadership has spearheaded programs (specifically, its Moving the Needle Program) and research designed to ensure that half of the leadership positions at higher-education institutions are held by women by the 2030. 

What's more, additional studies have been launched by the ACE Center for Policy Research, and a report filled with new data on women in higher education is due out during the 2016-2017 year. Until then, institutions of higher education must conduct regular audits and reviews on their commitment to diversity and include women in the pool of candidates for hiring consideration. While these steps may be simple, they can go a long way toward lessening the dramatic gender gap in institutions of higher learning.

Jami Morshed

Jami is vice president of global higher education at Unit4. My mission is to help colleges and universities improve student success and institutional effectiveness. I’m responsible for everything we do at the Unit4 Global Center of Excellence to help institutions prepare for the future through scalable and comprehensive software solutions that streamline and modernize core business processes while eliminating the burden of managing ever-changing technology.

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