Three years later, I would succeed Judith Rodin at the University of Pennsylvania and join Tilghman as president of an Ivy League school. The appointments of Drew Faust at Harvard, Christina Paxson at Brown (who succeeded Ruth Simmons) and Carol Folt as interim president at Dartmouth followed. As a result, women — for the time being — outnumber men as presidents of the eight Ivies.
All in all, according to the American Council of Education, 26 percent of American universities are led by women, a ratio that exceeds that of U.S. corporations (just 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women), military leaders (as of 2009, only 15.5 percent of officers in the four major services were women) and U.S. legislative leaders (only 18.3 percent of House and Senate members, combined, are women).
Yet despite the strides higher education has made in promoting female leaders, we have a considerable amount of work left to do. Women today account for more than half of all college students and, for the first time, hold more advanced degrees than men do. However, these numbers are not equally reflected at the top, and in order to serve the diversity of our students, as well as make better decisions for our institutions, they should be.
But there’s another reason we need more women leading our colleges and universities. To help meet the challenges our country faces — from a derailed global economy to an evolving geopolitical order less eager to take direction from American leadership — we must harness the full range of talent available, from women to people of color who are also underrepresented in leadership roles. That’s especially true in higher education, which will provide the methods of instruction and the means of discovery to help solve these enormous, complex problems.
Too many institutions, universities included, think women’s competitive advantages are tied to so-called traditional “women’s strengths,” such as collaboration or relationship-building. Not true: A 2012 study published online by the Harvard Business Review found that of the 16 competencies top leaders exemplify most, women rated higher than men in 12 of them. Two of the traits where women outperformed men most dramatically — taking initiative and driving for results — have long been labeled as “men’s strengths.” The point, of course, is not that one sex or the other produces innately more capable leaders. It is the value of drawing from the biggest possible pool of talent that matters.
Raw talent alone, however, is not enough, and at universities it’s not just what women know, or even whom women know, but who knows them that is most directly tied to career advancement. Almost anyone in a position of leadership can point to a highly placed individual who took an interest in fostering, and took pains to help develop, the trajectory of her career. These are not mere mentors but “sponsors,” or senior people who advocate on others’ behalf. Research shows that such powerful individuals are far more effective than mentors who simply offer feedback. Therefore, we as higher-education leaders must do more to retain and recruit role models and provide such sponsors for emerging women in our field.