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Policy & Practice

The relationship between the gender of presidents and institutional standing

Institutional mobility is key for women to move up in the academic leadership and prestige ladders.


Current discourse and numerous research studies (here, here, and here) about gender and the university presidency often describe women university presidents as rare and as leading lower-ranking or less prestigious institutions. My latest research, investigating 351 Canadian university presidents between 1980 and 2021 does not support these assumptions.

I began my study looking for possible connections between presidents’ various education and career experiences, demographics and the prestige of the university where they act as president. Since I knew that women presidents had only begun to appear in Canada a few decades ago, I expected that 1) there would be more female presidents over time, and 2) these presidents would lead less prestigious universities, similar to the situation for women presidents in the United States. However, that’s not what my data indicated.

When I looked at the proportion of women presidents by the start date of their presidencies, there was, unsurprisingly, a greater proportion of women presidents as time went by (<five per cent with start dates before 1980, versus over 30 per cent with start dates post-2020). This finding reflects similar increases in the proportion of women in governmental executive leadership, university faculty positions, and in the higher education student population. While women are better represented than before in such broad categorizations, there are large differences between different industries and fields of study.

Next, the proportions of women presidents in the last decade (while well below 50 per cent) come close to reflecting the share of full-time female academic staff in Canada in the 1990s – when many of the current generation of university presidents would have been starting their academic careers. Considering a lag of about 25 years, the otherwise seemingly low proportion of women presidents makes a lot of sense. If presidential appointments continue to come largely from within academia, then we should expect the proportion of women presidents to follow the same trends as we see in faculty overall, albeit with a significant delay.

Where are these women taking on presidential roles? I have categorized Canadian universities in three tiers related to prestige – high, middle and low – using a combination of institutional rankings. My analysis shows that once we control for relevant variables such as educational and professional background, women are as likely to be appointed presidents in highly prestigious universities as in lower-tier institutions.

This finding is in direct opposition to previous studies pointing to the stratification of academic leadership careers, with a greater proportion of women taking the helm at lower prestige institutions. However, that literature is largely from the American context, which has a different history, size, and structure than the Canadian higher education system. It may be that gender does not play as big a role for presidential candidates at Canadian universities compared to their counterparts in the U.S. Alternately, there are more women studying at the doctoral level at universities in Canada than before, and more women entering faculty careers; gendered differences in prestige of academic appointments may be more significant at points other than the presidency.

While gender was not significantly related to prestige of presidential appointment, the reputation of the institution where presidents worked immediately prior to the presidency was. With this relationship in mind, it is evident that institutional mobility is key for women to move up in the academic leadership and prestige ladders.

So, what are the main takeaways? Alongside the finding that there is no relationship between the gender of presidents and institutional standing come questions about whether demographic changes in Canadian academia will continue to increase the representation of women in leadership positions. In 20 or 30 years, will the population of Canadian university presidents reflect the staff and student populations of today? Will the importance of prestige further drive divisions in career trajectories for all faculty at low, medium, and high-prestige universities, regardless of gender? For future potential presidents, it may be that individual identity matters less than employers’ institutional pedigree – an issue of elitism, rather than of other forms of exclusion.

Summer Cowley is a PhD candidate studying university presidents at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto, as well as managing editor of the Canadian Journal of Higher Education.

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