Dr. Nancy Wayne

Scientist, Educator & Speaker

The Making of a College CEO: Different Paths for Women and Men

In academia, men can reach the presidency through a number of different pathways, but women have fewer options.

20120913_glass_ceilingIn a recent article posted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, analysts investigated the background of new presidents and chancellors (corporate equivalent of Chief Executive Officer) of colleges and universities just prior to taking that executive position.

What stood out was that women were Chief Academic Officers (e.g., provost) as their highest-level past position at nearly twice the rate as men. See Figure 1, panel A. This is the second-in-command position in higher education. As such, the CAO arguably has the clearest understanding of what it takes to become a successful president or chancellor.

Other immediate past positions included CEO of another college, interim CEO of the same college, vice president for student affairs, other college vice presidents, and dean. There is not much gender differences in these positions leading to a presidency (see Figure 1).

There were three other categories in which the rate of men was twice that of women moving into the presidency. See Figure 1, panel B:

  • Other college administrator
  • Other – outside academe, education-related
  • Other – outside academe, not education-related

These “Other” categories in which men outnumber women moving into the presidency is striking. It seems to account for a large portion of the gender difference seen with the CAO/provost position as an immediate past position (“Other”: gender difference of 11%; CAO/provost: gender difference of 13.5%).

Gender-New CEOs

Figure 1. Highest-level title prior to attaining presidency or chancellorship of a college or university as percentage of total for men (blue) and women (red). Panel A: gender difference in CAO/Provost position prior to presidency. Panel B: gender differences in “Other” types of positions prior to presidency. (Redrawn from Backgrounds of New Chief Executives at Colleges, 2017-18. Chronicle of Higher Education, August 19, 2018).

The Chronicle of Higher Education article did not provide possible interpretations of the data. But, I will give it a shot.

Do these “Other” positions prepare someone for the presidency of a college or university as well as someone who has held the position of Chief Academic Officer/provost? I would argue that the CAO/provost, who works closely with and partners with the president of their institution, is the most well prepared — other than someone who has already held a president position.

Women often have to out-credential men in the job market to reach the same career or job level (Kunze and Miller, 2017). Further, at every level of education from less than a high school degree to a bachelor’s degree and higher, women are paid significantly less than men (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018). And although there is still a pay gap in the U.S., women have been shown to out-perform men in business (James, 2016). Men are often given the benefit of the doubt regarding skills and experiences; women are not. As we see from the above graph, women in academic administration have to climb along the academic step ladder more so than men to get to the top of their profession.

Is there a solution?

Research by Kunze and Miller (2017) shows that “policies that increase female representation in corporate leadership can have spillover benefits to women in lowers (sic) ranks”. Matsa and Miller (2011) similarly showed a strong association between female share of board of directors and the share of female top executives. So there’s a potential powerful fix to inequitable treatment in hiring and advancement practices. Hire women at the top, and women at mid-range and lower levels in the organization will benefit so that their skills and productivity will be commensurate with their pay and rank. This could work for any organization, including higher education.



Backgrounds of New Chief Executives at Colleges, 2017-18. Chronicle of Higher Education, August 19, 2018.

Kunze A, Miller AR. Women helping women? Evidence from private sector data on workplace hierarchies. Review of Economics and Statistics 99: 769-775, 2017. (free draft paper: http://www.nber.org/papers/w20761)

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Usual Weekly Earnings of Wage and Salary Workers, second quarter 2018. “Table 5: Quartiles and selected deciles of usual weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers by selected characteristics, 2nd quarter 2018 averages, not seasonally adjusted”. Accessed August 21, 2018. 

James G. Science Says: Woman in Business Outperform Men. Inc., 2016.

Matsa DA, Miller AR. Chipping away at the glass ceiling: Gender spillovers in corporate leadership. American Economic Review 101: 635-639, 2011. (free draft paper: https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/working_papers/2011/RAND_WR842.pdf)


Image credit:

Breaking through the glass ceiling, 2012. 



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This entry was posted on August 21, 2018 by .

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