VoxEU Column Education

The gender of American academic leaders matters

Will having more women on the board of trustees at academic institutions increase the number of women in the faculty? This column presents evidence suggesting that if a board is one-quarter women, it reaches the critical mass needed to hasten gender diversity.

Over the last 30 years, the percentage of women receiving PhDs from American universities has increased from around 25% to 45%. The percentages in the science and engineering fields, while starting from a lower base, have increased even more rapidly. During the same period, the percentages of female faculty in American colleges and universities has also increased, with the rate of increase varying across institutions. Nevertheless, females remain underrepresented relative to their share of new doctoral recipients at America’s research universities - this is especially true in science and engineering fields.

Several recent National Research Council Reports (2010) have called attention to this discrepancy, while some researchers have found that females are more likely to major in science and engineering fields if the faculty members teaching their introductory classes are also female (see for example, Rask and Bailey 2002). Given the importance of science and engineering graduates for the rate of productivity growth in a nation, there is considerable pressure on American higher education institutions to increase their shares of female faculty, especially in science and engineering fields.

Does board gender affect faculty gender?

There is a literature that addresses the role that the gender composition of corporate leaders and corporate boards plays in influencing the outcome of corporations, including the gender mix of employees (see for example, Kurtulus and Tomaskovic-Devey 2009). Does a similar relationship exists in academia? Does the gender of the leaders of American colleges and universities, the trustees, presidents and chancellors, and provosts and academic vice presidents influence the rate at which academic institutions diversify their faculty across gender lines?

Several colleagues and I have explored this in a recent paper (see Ehrenberg et al 2009). In conjunction with the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, we conducted a survey to obtain historical data for the 1984 to 2007 period on the gender composition of the boards of trustees and the chair of the board at a nationally representative sample of American four-year colleges and universities. We also obtained similar historical data on the genders of the institutions’ presidents and provosts from the annual publication Higher Education Directory.

With this data, we examined whether the gender of these academic leaders influenced the rate at which the gender mix of the faculty increased at the institution – controlling for other factors expected to influence the gender mix of the faculty.

Leadership matters

We find that institutions with female presidents and female provosts, and those with a greater share of female trustees did increase their share of female faculty at more rapid rates. Moreover, the magnitudes of the effects of these leaders appeared to be largest at the smaller undergraduate institutions, where central administrators may play a greater direct role in hiring decisions than they do at the larger research universities.

The prior research on corporate boards of directors suggests there is a critical mass of female directors on the board which is necessary before fundamental changes occur in board operations. Similarly, we test whether this was true in academia and find that a critical share of the board of trustees of an academic institution of 25% must be reached before the gender composition of the board influences the speed with which an institution diversifies its faculty across gender lines.


Our study was only a first look at how the gender mix of leaders influences outcomes at American academic institutions. An important issue for future researchers to address is how the gender of administrators “on the ground” who are more directly involved with hiring and retention efforts – deans and department chairs – influences the diversification of the faculty.

We also need to understand better why the gender of leaders matters. For example, the recent National Research Council Committee, upon which I served, found evidence that the gender of the chair of faculty search committees, in the science and engineering fields at major research universities in the US, influences the likelihood that female PhDs will apply for positions at these universities. Apparently knowledge of the gender of the chair of the search committee signals something to potential female applicants about the seriousness of the department in wanting to expand female faculty employment and in providing leadership opportunities for female faculty.


Ehrenberg, Ronald G., George H. Jakubson, Mirinda L. Martin, Joyce B. Main, and Thomas Eisenberg (2009), “Do Trustees and Administrators Matter? Diversifying the Faculty Across Gender Lines”, NBER Working Paper 15606.

National Research Council (2010) Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering and Mathematics Faculty, Washington DC: National Academy Press.

Kurtulus, Fidan A and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey (2009), “Do Women Managers Help Women Advance? A Panel Study Using EEO-1 Records”, Working Paper, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts Amherst, August.

Rask, Kevin and Elizabeth Bailey (2002), “Are Faculty Role Models? Evidence from Major Choice in an Undergraduate Institution”, Journal of Economics of Education, 33 (Spring): 99-124.

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