By Mary Landon Darden
Women’s struggle for equity is far from over. In fact, it is slowing down. The number of women who are university of college presidents is clearly an example of this. Women represented a tiny percentage of the higher education presidencies (9.5%) in 1985 and which increased to 21.5% in 2002. But seven year later, that number has only moved to 23%. This is a clear indicator that – even after four decades – we need to do more.
At one time, it could be argued that the low numbers actually represented the population of the academy, however, women now fill more than 40% of the faculty and administrative positions in the academy, yet their numbers are far from representative at the upper levels of that ivory ladder.
In a study I conducted several years ago of 18 women college presidents, virtually all had influential mentors who helped them to climb their respective institutional ladders. Some of the mentors were women and some were men. Most of these presidents had multiple mentors on their journey, but all had mentors. Many of these presidents expressed gratitude for, and attributed much of their success to, that mentorship. Mentorship must play a key role in solving the persistent problem of inequity. Yet, there are still some women who do not reach out to other women down the ladder. Whoever is not part of the solution is part of the problem.
It will be interesting to see if the speed of change resumes as the number of women graduating with various degrees continues to exceed the number of men earning those same degrees in an increasing number of areas. In the meantime, women who have achieved the higher rung, have a greater duty and challenge to reach back down that ladder and extend a hand to as many as possible of the promising women below them. Because they are fewer, the responsibility of those women at the top is greater.
Additionally, we all must work harder to close the salary gaps. Women with professional degrees have the greatest stretch as they only receive 40% of the salaries as their male counterparts with equal education and experience.
Along with the lower salaries, women in the academy typically have a shorter tenure in administrative positions, as well. For this, we must all work toward bringing about true equity. Men have a responsibility, as well, to assist in reaching true equity and fairness in the academy. If we do not have true equity in the academy, how can we possibly expect to see it in society? We must all redouble our efforts to change the culture, to create real and unbiased opportunity for all. In a world where less than 2% of the Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs, we obviously have a strong cultural current that must be redirected.
I challenge all women higher education administrators at the chair level and higher to identify at least two promising women on lesser rungs of their ivory ladder and make a commitment to help them to develop their careers and support them in their climb. And, if men in administration do the same, perhaps we might achieve true equity within the academy within our lifetime and, hopefully, inspire all of society to move deliberately toward the same goal.
Mary Landon Darden is the author of Beyond 2020: Envisioning the Future of Universities in America published by the American Council on Education and Rowman and Littlefield Education. Additional information can be found at her website.