The Changing Role of Women in Higher Education

By Iris Doubleday

While times have certainly changed from the days when higher education was a male-dominated world, the role of women in academia is still subject to complications and debate. Women now make up the majority of college students, surpassing men in statistics of attendance, but the gender difference switches in the realm of professional academic careers. If women make up such a large part of undergraduate study, then why are there significantly fewer women in high-level leadership positions within academia?

According to Forbes, the male-female ratio in higher education has been steadily moving in favor of a majority of females from the 1970s to today, with currently a nearly 40-60 ratio of men to women at private colleges. A New York Times article published in 2006 claims that not only are there more women attending colleges than men, but that female undergraduates also appear to work harder and generally show more motivation to succeed than their male peers. The article suggests that these female students may be reacting to a leftover sense of “male entitlement,” causing them to feel a pressure to achieve and make up for the lost time in which higher education was a world dominated by men. 

In our current society, there is generally more pressure on women to achieve a successful career due to the male advantage in the work force; if men receive better pay and promotions, then women must work harder to succeed, and it seems that this mentality may carry over into the realm of undergraduate study. While women’s academic achievement continues to rise, perhaps this higher education success will translate into a growth of success for women in professional careers, at least within the realm of academic leadership. The current reality, however, seems to show the opposite. 

In “Women and Public Scholarship” Gwendolyn Beetham, herself a female academic in the disciple of Women’s and Gender Studies, discusses how in her experience women are often marginalized and lack a prominent voice in academic scholarship, which has a cost for their professional academic careers. Beetham asserts that female scholars are out there and have relevant things to say; in return, however, they need to be acknowledged by a broader academic public that will give their work a forum in which to be recognized. Similarly, Kelly Ward and Pamela L. Eddy discuss how women tend to “lean back from the ladder of academic progress, promotion, and leadership” in their article “Women and Academic Leadership: Leaning Out.” This article recognizes the lack of women in academic professional positions, arguing that those who do hold these positions are overrepresented in “feminized” disciplines such as Humanities and the Arts and underrepresented in sciences and engineering. 

Many women in academia hold themselves back due to the perception that advanced positions are not open to women, and due to the fact that these higher-level positions make it difficult to leave time for a family beyond work. While part of the responsibility lies with female academics, who must assert themselves in order to seek out these advanced leadership positions, higher education institutions are equally responsible for making careers that encourage and support women. This call for a reform of academic careers would be equally beneficial to the men who hold these positions while trying to balance a family life, and perhaps the problem lies not with a lack of female academics but with a more general need for change within academic careers as a whole. 

Iris Doubleday is a senior at Wheaton College majoring in English. Wheaton College is home to the Kappa of Massachusetts Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.