Women’s Representation Matters for Gender Equality

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The majority of college students are women. But at the faculty and administrative levels, women remain underrepresented — and that matters for learners.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), almost 58% of college students were men in 1970. The ratio of undergraduate men to women has nearly flipped 50 years later. NCES reports that women made up around 57% of all undergraduates in 2019.

As the number of women in higher education grew during the later stages of the 20th century and early 2000s, they began earning more degrees than men. In a 2017 update, the American Council on Education (ACE) reported that women earned more associate degrees than men for the first time in 1978. In 1982, they passed men in receiving bachelor's degrees. Women have been awarded more master's degrees than men since 1987. And they surpassed men in earning doctoral degrees in 2006.

The growing number of women in college represents one of the most important trends in higher education over the past half-century. However, that trend doesn't apply to women's representation among faculty and administrators in higher education.

Women still lag behind men in positions of authority on campus, which has a negative impact on academia as a whole. This underrepresentation indicates there is still more work to be done to advance gender equality on campus.

Gender Equality Among College Professors

In 2020, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) reported that women make up half of all college faculty. On the surface, this statistic seems to suggest gender equality has been achieved. However, a closer look at the numbers makes it clear that women are overrepresented in part-time and contingent positions.

Women hold about 43% of full-time tenured and tenure-track professorships. Women also make up a larger share of non-tenure-track faculty — around 54% of full-time contingent positions are filed by women. These contingent positions offer little job security, leaving faculty in precarious positions.

There are even greater gender imbalances among positions of higher authority. According to the 2017 report by ACE, there is a stark gender gap among associate professors. These professionals take on larger roles in departments and vote on tenure cases. Over 87,000 men held the title of associate professor, compared with only about 70,500 women.

Among full professors — the highest faculty rank — the gap was even wider. Over 124,000 men held the rank, compared to about 58,000 women.

The situation is even more dire for women of color. Out of the 182,204 full professors teaching in 2015, only 9,181 were Black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, or American Indian/Alaska Native women — just 5.0% of full professors. That number improves only slightly at the associate level (9.5%) and assistant level (11.6%).

Women in College Administration

Higher education administrators run academic departments, oversee student services, and set policies for colleges. As you go up the ladder in these offices, the number of women shrinks.

At the departmental level, women and men stand on a relatively even playing field in terms of department chairs. A 2017 report by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR) shows women head slightly more than half of departments. Additionally, women made up about 54% of assistant deans in 2016 — up from about 46% in 2001.

Yet in positions with greater responsibilities and higher pay, women remain underrepresented. As of 2016, women made up around 40% of deans and 27% of top executives in higher education.

Similarly, CUPA-HR reports women made up only about 30% of college presidents — authority figures who make key decisions about an institution's resources and priorities. And these women presidents primarily worked at less-research-intensive colleges. According to ACE, only 8% of women college presidents worked at doctorate-granting institutions in 2017.

And only 5% of college presidents were women of color.

ACE reported that men also outnumbered women 2-to-1 on college governing boards. The number of women on college boards of directors stalled at about 30% between 1996 and 2016.

Why Women Leave Academia

Why are women underrepresented in faculty and administrative roles? And why does the number of women shrink among positions of increased rank and responsibility?

It might seem easy to dismiss women's underrepresentation as a holdover from an era when men dominated academia. Many of today's full professors earned their doctorates in the 1980s or earlier — when men made up the majority of doctoral graduates.

But factors preventing women from rising in the ranks at colleges and universities persist. Many of today's associate professors graduated after women surpassed men in earning doctorates. Yet, according to the AAUP, the percentage of female tenured professors actually dropped between 2003 and 2019.

Several forces push women out of academia, including caregiver responsibilities, the pay gap, discrimination, and structural pressures.

Take faculty with children, for example. New parents face unequal pressures in academia. The so-called "parenthood penalty" typically affects women during the years that have the largest impact on an academic's career advancement.

Women in academia often delay having children due to the pressures of doctoral education and pre-tenure work expectations. A 2021 Science article showed that women in academia with children tend to have their first child at 33. In the U.S. and Canada, the overall average age women have their first child is 26.

Caregiver responsibilities tend to fall on women more than men — a reality that creates gender inequalities in higher education. As a result, women with children seemingly vanish from academia. According to information shared by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), about 70% of tenured male faculty have children, compared to only 44% of tenured female faculty.

Additionally, in the 2017 ACE study, 32% of women college presidents reported altering their career plans to take on caregiver responsibilities for a child, spouse, or parent. In comparison, only 16% of male college presidents changed career plans to act as caregivers.

The gender pay gap also hurts women in academia. In a 2018 AAUP survey, women reported earning lower salaries than their male counterparts at every faculty rank. While male faculty earn an average salary of $97,700, female faculty earn less than $80,000 — or roughly 81% of their male colleagues' salary.

That pay gap persists in administrative roles, where women earn 20% less than men. And that gap shows no real signs of narrowing. According to CUPA-HR, it barely changed between 2002 and 2017.

On top of lower pay, women faculty experience sexism and racism on campus. Unconscious bias pushes women to take on more supportive responsibilities that do not advance their careers. Bigotry also targets non-cisgender faculty and staff. And gendered racism and misogynoir take a high toll on women of color. These compounding factors create a system that pushes women out of academia.

How Equality for Women Helps Students

The underrepresentation of women in decision-making roles on campus has a ripple effect that goes beyond academia. Fewer women in leadership roles hurts everyone.

Students benefit from mentorship relationships with faculty. The 2018 Gallup Alumni Survey found that college graduates with mentors were twice as likely to be engaged at work — and they report higher levels of career satisfaction.

Faculty mentors help students plan their careers, thrive in class, and transition into the workforce. Transgender students with supportive faculty mentors reported less stress on campus — a critical factor considering 16% of trans students who reported experiencing harassment dropped out of college in 2018.

Faculty also connect students with internships, write letters of recommendation, and participate in professional development. Female students — and particularly women students of color — may have fewer options for faculty mentors with shared experiences.

Women in academia also act as role models for future generations. Today's students may struggle to become tomorrow's faculty members and college presidents if they don't see people who look like them in leadership roles.

Finally, women in leadership roles often push for more inclusive policies, fight bias and sexual harassment, and act as role models for students of all genders. They may also support trans and nonbinary staff and faculty who are also underrepresented and marginalized on campus.

As Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it, "Women belong in all places where decisions are being made."

Feature Image: Tom Werner / DigitalVision / Getty Images