Percentage of Women Presidents at Elite Research Universities Is Increasing, Report Finds

Between 2021 and 2023, women presidents' representation at elite research institutions grew by 8 percentage points.
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Jessica Bryant is a higher education analyst and senior data reporter for BestColleges. She covers higher education trends and data, focusing on issues impacting underserved students. She has a BA in journalism and previously worked with the South Fl...
Published on June 8, 2023
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  • Thirty percent of university presidents at the country's most elite research institutions are women.
  • Since 2021, the percentage of women presidents at elite research universities has increased by 8 percentage points.
  • The percentage of presidents who are also women of color remains low but did increase between 2021 and 2023.
  • Gender parity in leadership at institutions is still a long way away. Currently, no woman leads one of the 25 independent university systems.

Though women have a long history of outnumbering men in college enrollment and completion, their leadership at institutions across the U.S. has often been nonexistent.

Now, women presidents account for nearly a third of the presidents at the helm of the country's most elite research institutions, a new report by Women's Power Gap (WPG) finds.

Between 2021 and 2023, the percentage of women as presidents at these institutions grew from 22% to 30%.

WPG analyzed data from 146 elite research universities — otherwise known as R1s — and additionally found that even the percentage of presidents who are women of color increased during the period. However, this increase was much smaller.

The percentage of men of color who are presidents remained stagnant during this period at 18%.

Certain institutions stood out more than others for their increase in women leadership from 2021-2023.

Among the eight Ivy League institutions — Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University — six are currently led by women presidents.

And at least 10 institutions — including Columbia, Dartmouth, and New York University — named their first women presidents in 2023.

Despite these notable strides, there is still significant work to be done before gender parity is reached in university leadership.

Currently, there is not a single woman president in place at the 25 independent university systems. And at least 40% of R1s have never had a woman president in their history.

Also, less than 30% of board chairs at R1s in 2023 are women.

Further, with women of color representing less than a 10th of university presidents at R1s and men of color representing less than 1 in 5 university presidents at R1s, racial parity will take even longer to be reached.

Women of color are instead much more likely to be in leadership roles at community colleges, according to recent data from the American Council on Education (ACE).

Women also tend to be more commonly represented in lower-level leadership roles like provosts. As of 2023, 39% of provosts at R1s are women — 9 percentage points higher than the percentage of women presidents.

The benefits of having diversified leadership at university institutions have long been discussed and analyzed.

Data collected in 2022 revealed that when women are in presidential and provost positions at colleges, other women leaders working under them tend to earn more — allowing for increased pay parity between men and women.

For institutions to increase their gender parity, the WPG report suggests that they address structural obstacles in the hiring process, remove selection bias, and work toward changing the system of higher education leadership rather than just training candidates to fit the existing structure.

"True diversity comes by creating inclusive environments where all can flourish," said Andrea Silbert, president of the Eos Foundation, in the report.