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Women in Academic Leadership: Analysis of root causes for under-representation

Women in Academic Leadership: Analysis of root causes for under-representation 

Francesca Dominici, PhD


Department Biostatistics

Bloomberg School of Public Health

Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore MD, USA


Ilene Busch-Vishniac, PhD

Provost and Vice-President Academic

McMaster University

Hamilton, Ontario, CA


Barbara Landau, PhD

Dick and Lydia Todd Professor and Chair

Department of Cognitive Science

Krieger School of Arts and Sciences

Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, MD, USA


Jeffrey Jarosz, PhD

Research Assistant

Department of Mechanical Engineering

Whiting School of Engineering

Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, MD, USA


Emma Stokes, PhD


Department of Medicine

School of Medicine

Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, MD


Ray Gillian, PhD

Vice Provost for Institutional Equity

Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, MD, USA


Cathy Lebo, PhD

Director of Institutional Research

Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, MD, USA


Lindsay Thompson PhD

Assistant Professor

Department of Management

Carey Business School

Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, MD, USA


Scott L Zeger PhD

Vice Provost for Research

Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, MD, USA


Kristina Johnson PhD


Johns Hopkins University

Baltimore, MD, USA


Linda P. Fried  MD MPH

Dean of Mailman School of Public Health

Columbia University

New York, NY, USA



Despite interventions by leaders in higher education, women are still under-represented in academic leadership positions. This dearth of women leaders is no longer a pipeline issue, raising questions as to the root causes for the persistence of this pattern.  To advance talented women in leadership positions, on July 14 2008, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published a Request for Applications (RFA) to support research on causal factors and interventions that promote the careers of women in biomedical science and engineering. We have identified four themes as the root causes for the under-representation of women in leadership positions from focus group interviews of senior women faculty leaders at Johns Hopkins. These causes are found in routine practices surrounding leadership selection as well as in cultural assumptions about leadership potential and effectiveness.  

Abstract word counts: 131

Manuscript word counts: 2075 

1. Introduction 

Despite good intentions and selected interventions by leaders in higher education, women are still significantly under-represented in academic leadership positions, absolutely and relative to the eligible pool of tenured women (1). This finding has been documented extensively in the literature, by NIH, and by many academic institutions that have undertaken self-evaluations (Table 1) (2,,3).  This dearth of women leaders, both academic and administrative, is no longer a pipeline issue (1, 2), raising questions as to the root causes for the persistence of this pattern.  

In an effort to advance talented women in leadership positions, on July 14 2008, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published a Request for Applications (RFA) to support research on causal factors and interventions that promote and support the careers of women in biomedical and behavioral science and engineering (http://www.nih.gov/news/health/jul2008/od-14.htm). The publication of this RFA signals recognition of the still sub-optimal situation of leadership by women in academia and of the need for evidence that will guide continued efforts to address this problem. 

Yet, there is already sufficient evidence of a widespread problem. The tangible manifestations of gender-based obstacles, i.e., lower salary, appointment at lower rank, slower rate of promotion, lower recognition through awards, and not being retained, have been described extensively (3-8). For women in academia, time tables for tenure decisions often coincide with optimal childbearing years (9,10), requiring women to individually resolve the conflicts between their biological and career clocks. One possible manifestation of this conflict is that tenured women in academic science are twice as likely as tenured men to be single (5,10). Women academics who have children still shoulder the majority of domestic responsibilities (6). Women with children of pre-kindergarten age are less likely to be in a tenure track job than their male counterparts (7,11).  

While the above manifestations of gender-based obstacles have been consistently observed at many universities, businesses, and governmental organizations, there are no qualitative evaluations that have formally probed the experiences of and reported the composite opinions of senior women faculty leaders on the root causes of under-representation of women in leadership positions.  

In 2002, Provost Knapp and President Brody empanelled a University Committee on the Status of Women (UCSOW) at The Johns Hopkins University (2). The committee and university leadership agreed that one major focus essential to establish gender equity at the university was to successfully cultivate women leaders. The committee decided to focus on how the University can move to achieve a significant and sustainable change. Recognizing the root causes of obstacles to leadership, that is, the gender-stereotypes which are found in cultural assumptions about leadership potential and effectiveness, is the first concrete step toward their elimination.  These root causes are the most distal components of a complex web of causation that lead to the under-representation of women in leadership positions. Therefore the UCSOW initiated a formal process of interviewing senior women faculty to identify the root causes of obstacles to leadership by women. In this paper we summarize the findings of focus group interviews on four themes on the perceived root causes underlying the manifestations of gender-based obstacles. Identifying these subtle factors and disseminating the information provide a basis for developing successful interventions to expand leadership by women. 

2. Methods

Twenty-seven senior women faculty with primary appointments in all the major divisions of the University participated in five focus groups, where the following questions were asked, in a semi-structured interview:

  • What are the characteristics that identify a leader in academia?
  • What do women need to know about leadership?
  • Are women faculty attracted to leadership positions, as currently designed?
  • Do women have access to an environment (mentoring and access to information) that is conducive to their growing into leaders?
  • What is it about leadership roles in our institution that could be problematic for women?

Of the 27 women, 8 have a rank of Department Chair or Dean or Provost. Details on the methods are described in the supplemental material. 

3. Root causes for the under-representation of women in leadership position

Analysis of the focus group discussions identified four themes reported or endorsed by greater than the majority of participants (Table 2).  

Paths to leadership are slower or more often blocked for women: Participants thought that women��s paths to leadership roles do not include their being recruited by the conventional pattern of jobs and roles.  Administrative positions in academia have a well-defined hierarchy, with progressive ranks that are fairly uniform nationwide, from division director to department chair, dean and then university leadership roles. It is generally expected that a career in academic administration progresses by moving up the rungs on this ladder sequentially.  However, participants observed that women are less often recruited into the starting administrative ranks, and therefore there are fewer women available to climb these ranks sequentially. Rather, their paths to leadership often involve directing academic programs, chairing committees, or leading a research center or institute that they initiate and often fund themselves. 

Participants articulated that understanding and addressing the causes of the under-representation of women in a department director (or chair) position is important for a number of reasons.  First, departmental leadership is the only discipline-specific leadership position that resides entirely with one��s scholarly peers; thus, being offered a department leadership position enhances a candidate��s credibility as a scholarly leader within their field.  Second, being a division director and/or departmental chair provides a basis for developing skills and credentials in administration, and thus offers an opportunity for women to develop such expertise and a track record of effectiveness as a basis for competitiveness for for leadership roles of greater seniority.  Third, being a departmental chair confers a dramatic increase in administrative and leadership visibility, both internally to the institution and externally, that is important to career progression and to visibility of women as effective leaders.  It also offers the opportunity for women to determine, through experience, whether longer-term careers in academic administration are attractive, and to provide relevant mentorship and role modeling to others.     

Leadership positions, as currently defined and implemented or enacted, are less attractive to women, and possibly to an increasing number of men: Leadership roles appear under-resourced and therefore do not allow or promote more contemporary types of effective leadership. To compensate for this under-resourcing, the apparent expectation of the position is that leaders must be available and do an inordinately extensive range of duties -- a veritable ��24/7�� professorial role.  To perform the jobs in this manner, it seems necessary to have spouses who can supplant their professional and personal roles.  The senior women interviewed observed that, normatively, not only are most leaders male, but many, if not most, male leaders have spouses who do not work outside the home, thus bringing the additional resource of the role of a spouse to contribute to the human capital in the leadership role. Participants believe that the implicit expectation is that academic leaders are available to work at any time (see, for example, (12,13). This expectation makes leadership roles less attractive to many women, in part because it is likely that they have personal obligations that cannot be relegated to others. The participants saw these expectations as being anachronistic in a society where both men and women have fulltime jobs, and two-career families are the norm.     

Focus group participants also suggested that male, transactional and hierarchical models of leaderships are the current standard. For many women, this normatively valued style was not perceived to foster collegiality and collaboration nor consistent with the altruistic academic mission.  Further, it was deemed to be antithetical to an environment they would choose to lead. It was noted that the academic leadership literature recommends evolution to more transformative leadership styles, which are conducive to multidisciplinary problem-solving and creative innovation (14). The literature also identifies that women bring a diversity of leadership styles shown to be effective in academia (15,16).    

Women already in leadership roles are not as well recognized or appropriately rewarded within their institutions: Although there are many women who provide leadership within the University, focus group members report that they appear to be less recognized and respected as leaders by their colleagues or by others within the University because most of these women do not have designated leadership positions such as department chairs or deans. However, many are, at the same time, recognized nationally and internationally as leaders in their fields of expertise. It was frequently reported in the focus groups that these women leaders have developed centers or programs that address unmet important needs, have often done so without support from either departmental or university resources, with little encouragement, and often with only tacit approval from their department chairs and deans.  In this challenging circumstance, nonetheless, they have found external funding to support the activity and worked internally to secure space and other resources, often over several decades. These programs typically have benefited the university by producing significant scholarship.  However, their leadership roles and contributions are often under-recognized or appreciated within the University. The participants observed that experiences of these more senior women discourage younger women faculty from taking similar initiative to develop new programs and centers, or to inherit these leadership positions when the founding leaders leave the University or retire, because they perceive that the substantial time and effort involved are unfairly onerous and are not recognized or valued by the University. Thus, this perceived lack of organizational value may undermine the longevity of significant programs, and may damper recruitment of younger women into leadership roles. 

Women are more often excluded from the informal network of intellectual leadership:  Deans and department chairs exercise an instrumental role in cultivating the intellectual leadership capabilities and productivity of faculty members. Newly-hired faculty, in particular, rely on senior faculty for the transition to the collegial culture of academia as well as for mentoring, networking, and critically reflective dialogue towards developing a robust research agenda that complements or enhances established research streams. This acculturation process for new faculty builds on natural affinities of experiences, outlook, and interests shared with senior faculty.  With perhaps no gender bias intended, male faculty members are observed to be more likely to build substantive collegial relationships with other men, often leaving newly hired women to fend for themselves because the majority of senior faculty are men. The decreased access to informal networks appears to contribute to lessened mentorship and guidance towards leadership positions, and increased likelihood of marginalization.   

4. Conclusions

Manifestations of gender-based obstacles to leadership positions are well-documented and similar across academic institutions (Table 1) (1).  One of these manifestations is the persistent dearth of women leaders in academia, observed in most U.S. universities. This report seeks to add to our understanding of why this might be, by defining four themes on the root causes that underlie the persistent under-representation of women in leadership roles.  

The overall findings of our analysis, as reported above, indicate thematic areas for further consideration: factors in the slowed development of women��s careers; decreased access to leadership and to mentorship to become a leader; lesser recognition of leadership contributions, which undermines career trajectories as well as stature and satisfaction in the role; and current norms regarding valued leadership attributes and the nature, design and resourcing of leadership roles.  All of these issues appear to diminish the expectation of access to leadership roles or likelihood of success in such roles, and are perceived by senior women faculty to lead to much dampened interest in leadership roles.  

We hope that this information will provide a basis for further evaluating these issues and for developing interventions that target these root causes, in addition to correcting the manifestations of gender bias.  Such interventions will be critically important components for increasing the proportion of leaders who are women and in positioning them for optimal success in these roles.     

It is also important to consider the cultural changes needed to bring women��s contributions to the university into full development. Recommendations are in place in universities across the U.S. to accomplish this goal, including resolving the salary gap between men and women, and establishing more family-friendly policies.  Their implementation has significant impact on the pipeline of women in a university, as well as their success. For example, when MIT implemented a policy change that gave women paid time off from teaching to allow them to care for their children, the number of women faculty increased by 50% (17).  Further, visions for more diverse and inclusive faculty, by gender, ethnicity and race, are increasingly being put forward, with all faculty and leaders being held accountable.  Assessing whether the appointment of more women in high-level administrative positions impacts the career and satisfaction of women in academia should be a priority.  Examination is necessary of both the informal practices that are inherent in current leadership selection as well as some of the implicit assumptions about the value that women might bring to leadership roles. The cultural changes that establish inclusiveness and equality of opportunity for success also need to be attended to, as a basis for addressing the root causes of inequality of opportunity, and to ensure successful and sustainable change in these areas.  This report further suggests that these cultural changes recommended for faculty and students now need to be brought to the design and implementation of leadership roles and the expectations of leaders. 


Table 1:  Reports on status of women from peer institutions available on the web in chronological order for the period 1999 to 2007 

Date Institution Title Web link
March 1999 Massachusetts Institute of Technology A Study on the Status of

Women Faculty in Science at MIT

August 1999 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign The Status of Women Faculty at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


August 1999 University of Virginia Report on Gender Equity http://www.virginia.edu/topnews/equity.html
August 1999 and October 2002 University of Arizona Millennium Project Phase One and Phase Two Reports http://www.u.arizona.edu/~millen/index.html
October 1999 University of Wisconsin Initiative on the Status of Women http://www.uwsa.edu/acss/status/home.htm
October 2000 University of California at Los Angeles Gender Equity Issues Affecting Senate Faculty at UCLA

Report of the Gender Equity Committee

January 2001 Marquette University President��s Task Force on Gender Equity http://www.marquette.edu/genderequity/index.html
September 2001 and May 2007 University of Michigan Gender Salary Study: Summary of Initial Findings and Update http://www.provost.umich.edu/reports/U-M_Gender_Salary_Study.pdf 


November 2001 Columbia University Advancement of Women Through the Academic Ranks of The Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: Where are the Leaks in the Pipeline? http://www.columbia.edu/cu/senate/annual_reports/01-02/Pipeline2a_as_dist.doc.pdf
December 2001 California Institute of Technology Committee on the Status of Women Faculty at Caltech Final Report http://diversity.caltech.edu/documents/CSFWFINALREPORT1.pdf 
December 2001 University of Pennsylvania The Gender Equity Report http://www.upenn.edu/almanac/v48/n14/GenderEquity.html.
January 2002 Northwestern University Annual Report for 2000/2001 Committee on Women in the Academic Community http://www.northwestern.edu/provost/committees/cowac/2001report.pdf
February 2002 University of California


Do Babies Matter: The effect of family formation on the life long careers of academic men and women http://www.ucop.edu/pressummit/babies.pdf
March 2002 North Carolina State University Consulting Report on Gender Equity and Work/Family Issues http://www.ncsu.edu/awf/Drago_report.pdf
March 2002 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Reports of the Committees on the Status of Women Faculty http://web.mit.edu/faculty/reports
September 2002 Emory University An Analysis of Faculty Gender Issues http://www.pcsw.emory.edu/pdf/Gender Equity Report.pdf
October 2002 New York University Report to Dean Foley and P&P on Equity Analysis http://www.nyu.edu/fas/NewsEvents/FASNews/GenderEquity/GenderEquity.pdf
March 2003 Case Western Reserve University Resource Equity at Case Western Reserve University: Results of Faculty focus Groups http://www.case.edu/menu/president/resource.htm
May 2003 Princeton University Report of the Task Force on the Status of Women Faculty 

in the Natural Sciences and Engineering at Princeton

June 2003 Duke University Women Initiative Report http://www.duke.edu/womens_initiative/report_report.htm
March 2004 University of Michigan Gender in Science and Engineering

Report of the Subcommittee on Faculty Evaluation and Development

http://www.umich.edu/~advproj/GSE-_Faculty_ Evaluation_ Development.pdf
May 2004 Stanford University Report of the Provost��s Advisory Committee on the Status of Women Faculty http://www.stanford.edu/dept/provost/womenfacultyreport/PACSWF.pdf
Fall 2004 University of California at San Francisco Slow Steps to Change 1971-2004 A History of the UCSF Chancellor��s Advisory Committee on the Status of Women and Strategies for Increased Impact http://statusofwomen.ucsf.edu/pdf/CACSWhistoryNov2004.pdf
February 2005 University of California at Berkeley Faculty Family Friendly Edge

An Initiative for Tenure-Track Faculty at the University of California

May 2005 Harvard University Report of the Task Force on Women Faculty http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/daily/2005/05/16-wtaskforce_release.html
March/April 2006 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Diversification of a University Faculty: Observations on Hiring Women Faculty in the Schools of Science and Engineering at MIT http://web.mit.edu/fnl/volume/184/hopkins.html 
May 2006 The University of Iowa Gender Equity Task Force http://www.provost.uiowa.edu/work/getf.htm
August 2006 University of Virginia Women Leadership Council Report on Activities http://www.virginia.edu/uvacommittees/presidentialcommittees/wlc/reports.html
November 2006 Johns Hopkins University Vision 2020 http://www.jhu.edu/ucsow
June 2007 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 2006-2007 Report of the Provost��s Gender Equity Planning Team http://www.provost.uiuc.edu/committees/reports/GenderEquity.pdf

Note: this table includes a sample of the reports on the status of women from US academic institutions released since 1999 and that are available on the web. Most of the academic institutions listed in this table, including Johns Hopkins University, have produced multiple reports on the status of  women prior the year 1999 which are not included in this table. Some of these earlier reports can also be downloaded from the above web sites. 


 Table 2: Themes identified by the analysis of the focus group discussions

Theme 1 Paths to leadership are slow or blocked for women
Theme 2 Leadership positions, as currently defined, are not attractive to women, and possibly to an increasing number of men
Theme 3 Women who are providing leadership are not recognized, or are undervalued, under-resourced, and often marginalized
Theme 4 Women are excluded from the informal network of intellectual leadership


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