Diverse Commencement Speakers Won’t Change the Fact That There's a Lack of Women in Higher Ed Leadership

photo credit:  Good Free Photos , via  Unsplash

photo credit: Good Free Photos, via Unsplash

Announcements for college commencement speakers have been rolling out as campuses nationwide prepare for the biggest event of the school year. GenderAvenger decided to take a look at how universities are faring when it comes to gender balance on the commencement stage.

We reviewed speaker announcements for the top 50 colleges and universities, arguably among the most influential higher education institutions in the United States, as ranked by US News & World Report. We were really surprised by what we discovered, a shockingly balanced group that would warrant a Bronze GA Stamp of Approval:

 
Note: These numbers are based on available announcements as of April 19, 2019.

Note: These numbers are based on available announcements as of April 19, 2019.

 

Commencements are public-facing events, and the speakers selected validate and lend gravitas to a university’s foothold in the public consciousness. The luminaries they invite to the stage make a statement about the universities’ values, and this surprisingly balanced group speaks well for them.

One thing was nagging at us, though. The highest echelons of leadership in US-based universities skew undeniably in favor of men. In fact, only 30% of campus presidents are women, and a mere 5% are women of color, according to a 2017 study by the American Council on Education — and that’s up 4% from 2012. A look at the same top 50 universities used to evaluate commencement speakers revealed that just 8 out of 50 have women presidents or chancellors — that’s only 16%, which is far lower than the average.

Take a look at some more revealing data points:

  • Women earn more than 50% of all degrees, from associate all the way up to doctoral degrees. (1)

  • Men hold more full professorships than women by two to one; however, assistant professors, instructors, and lecturers are majority women. (2)

  • Men are two times more likely than women to sit on a university or college governing board. (3)

Drilling Down: The Case of Massachusetts

A sample of speakers appearing at Massachusetts commencements reveals good gender balance in line with our national findings:

 
 

While these institutions are showing gender parity on stage, it won’t change the fact that they are failing at diversity in leadership. Using state-specific data on gender and leadership in Massachusetts-based higher education through the Eos Foundation’s Women’s Power Gap in Higher Education Study and Rankings, we were able to take a look at how these same schools fare on the leadership front.

The student body across these institutions is dominated by women (57%), yet women hold just 31% of all presidencies with particularly egregious numbers when it comes to state school leadership — just 7% of presidents are women.

Eos has been very clear that “the lack of parity among women presidents cannot be explained as a ‘pipeline issue.’” This is backed by research that shows women are well represented in positions that most often lead to presidency: 47% of all provosts and 52% of deans are women.

It’s time for universities and colleges to do the work.

While we applaud universities putting forward a diverse group of commencement speakers, it’s time for them to do the work of ensuring that leadership in higher education reflects the incredible diversity of our students.

This is not to say that certain universities aren’t scoring high in the inclusion department, but, in aggregate and based on our sample, many schools that are failing behind the scenes are putting forward diverse speakers for these momentous ceremonies.

Featuring women on commencement stages is important, but we need to be sure they are not being used to mask deeper gender imbalance throughout the system. Is it possible that we are onto another case of camouflage? You give the grades.


1 Johnson, Heather L. and the American Council on Education. Pipelines, Pathways, and Institutional Leadership: An Update on the Status of Women in Higher Education. PDF file. 2017. https://www.acenet.edu/news-room/Documents/HES-Pipelines-Pathways-and-Institutional-Leadership-2017.pdf.
2 Hatch, Joshua. "Gender Pay Gap Persists Across Faculty Ranks." The Chronicle of Higher Education. 22 March 2017. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Gender-Pay-Gap-Persists-Across/239553.
3 Johnson, Heather L. and the American Council on Education. Pipelines, Pathways, and Institutional Leadership: An Update on the Status of Women in Higher Education. PDF file. 2017. https://www.acenet.edu/news-room/Documents/HES-Pipelines-Pathways-and-Institutional-Leadership-2017.pdf.