Where are the women academic leaders and STEMs?

There has been a fair amount of hand-wringing and excuse-offering in the past decade about the continued lack of representation of women and minorities in the upper ranks of higher education and in the STEMs (science, technology, engineering, and math). Supposedly, the increased flow into the pipeline should have paid off by now with proportional out-flow of women into the highest ranks, especially in the sciences. But that hasn’t quite happened. Despite graduation rates exceeding that of men for both undergraduate degrees and many graduate degrees, women still hold a minority of tenured faculty leadership positions, an even smaller proportion of division chief and department chair appointments, and even fewer provost, dean, and university president positions. If the explanation isn’t the flow into the pipeline, what is it? Simply put, the pipeline is leaking. Women and minorities enter the pipe in a gush, but leave in a trickle. So one clear explanation for the gap is that, because of flaws in the pipeline, the pressure with which women exit the pipeline is not sufficient to propel them to the upper ranks.

I agree with this theory and, I would argue, the pipeline IS flawed – but not in the way you might think. I don’t believe that a lack of qualified women has resulted in fewer females in leadership positions in higher-ed. That conclusion rests on the assumption that women exiting the pipeline WANT these positions but just can’t get them. Rather, I am not convinced that there is a huge pool of women out there chomping at the bit to be university Assistant Vice President of Administrative Paperwork. Most people are familiar with the phrase, “If you can’t Do, Teach.” The rest of that phrase is “If you can’t Teach, Administrate.” I submit that the very architecture of higher-ed administration was created as a solution to the problem of mediocre professors that are a statistical part of any bell curve. The fact that so many businesses – not to mention the federal government – are disproportionably top-heavy attests to the common problem of mediocre achievers. In professional environments where firing these individuals is not an option (a la tenure or civil service), the traditional solution has been to promote the problem. And if there is not already an administrative position open, create a new one. THIS, in my humble view, is how the ranks of higher-ed administration have swelled with white males. And it is also why this distribution has not shifted with the pipeline. Precisely because they have to succeed despite a pipeline with serious negative pressure along the way, women and minorities that emerge from the top of the pipeline are GOOD at their jobs. And dedicated to them. These are not the people that typically choose to shift gears; trading their area of expertise for the rewards of administration.

So, what is my solution, you ask? I say let’s stop focusing on the women and minorities that fight their way through the pipeline – they are going to be fine. If we are truly committed to a higher-ed leadership that is demographically reflective of the larger community, then we must go back and catch those academics that leave the pipeline at the early stages. The minority pipeline is selecting for only the very best, the very far left of the bell curve. And we are missing all those that would fall to the right of the mean. We need to refocus our strategy on those that can’t make the tenure climb, those that don’t want to put in the long hours, those that can’t compete with their ultra-selective and highly-motivated minority peers and PROMOTE THEM – they are leadership material.

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