On July 1, 2023, Claudine Gay will become the new president of Harvard University. On that same day, Nemat “Minouche” Shafik will take over at Columbia University, and Sian Leah Beilock will assume the lead at Dartmouth College. That means that six out of eight Ivy League schools will be led by women. Cornell University, Brown University, and the University of Pennsylvania all also have women presidents.
This milestone is important not only because women represent 60% of the student population in both undergraduate and graduate programs, but also because Ivy League schools tend to set the example for other academic institutions. Representation at that level could mean more female leadership throughout academia.
The first woman to lead an Ivy League school was Judith Rodin, who became president of the University of Pennsylvania in 1994. Since the 1800s, there have been examples of women serving as the president of co-ed colleges and universities, but they continue to be in the minority. From 1986 to 1998, the percentage of female colleges skyrocketed from 9.5% to 19%. As of 2023, women only account for approximately 25%-30% of all college presidents.
These lopsided numbers can be traced back to a handful of causes.
First and foremost, women are provided with the same promotion structures as men. Becoming a president requires moving up the ladder of leadership positions, but if women aren’t given access to these lower-level positions, there is no opportunity for them to rise to the top.
There is still an institutional bias against women that prevents them from even entering the leadership pipeline.
As a result of these biases, women are also excluded from other opportunities, such as mentorships and professional networks that can help bolster their careers.
These barriers have prevented universities from providing more diverse leadership, which can lead to better decision making and innovative solutions.
That is why having six women leading major Ivy League schools is something to celebrate!
Visibility and representation can inspire both students and professionals both inside and outside of academia. More female presidents leading colleges and universities only expands the possibilities and opportunities for other women.