In 2018, the United States saw an unprecedented number of women running for leadership roles in government at all levels [1
]. This is part of a broader movement in our society that has seen women becoming more involved in leadership of every kind [2
], as well as a general rebalancing of power dynamics between men and women, which involves everything from a desire for fair pay [3
] to an effort to address the increasingly visible issue of sexual harassment [4
In the US, women are an increasing percentage of college degree earners. Women earn 58% of bachelor’s degrees overall, yet in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) women are earning only 36% of baccalaureate degrees [5
]. Within STEM, there is a wide variation in the participation of women, with the biological sciences granting 60% of bachelor’s degrees to females, and computer sciences only 19% [6
]. The number of women in leadership positions is similarly low. In US colleges and universities, women are only 30% of presidents [7
]. In industry, there are more US CEOs named James than there are CEOs who are women [8
The literature on gender and science is voluminous [9
]; the research on women and leadership is also significant [11
]. Much of the research has examined reasons for women’s under-representation: the barriers that women face. For women in the STEM fields, the barriers are numerous: lack of role models [13
], discrimination [14
], harassment [4
], and work-life integration [16
], to name just a few. For women moving into leadership positions, the barriers are similar [18
]. This similarity poses an interesting question: what issues does a women in a leadership position in STEM face?
As more women take on STEM leadership roles, understanding what their experiences are can help promote other women’s aspirations to, and success in, leadership. In the STEM fields, having more women in leadership can itself be an action that will help promote more equitable representation overall. Yet we have virtually no information on this interesting overlap: women in STEM and in leadership. We can best explore what will help women in leadership in STEM if we start by examining the foundations of the question: how many women in STEM are in leadership positions? How many women in leadership positions have a STEM background?
This study is a beginning toward exploring the intersection of women, STEM, and leadership; it explores numbers of women in STEM leadership and how women with STEM backgrounds stand more broadly in overall leadership among academics. There is much literature on women and leadership and an even greater amount of research on women and STEM. It is more than past time to look at the points of intersection.
2. Materials and Methods
The first step in learning about the experiences of women in STEM leadership is to find out how many women are in these positions. Academia is used as a starting point because the data for people in leadership positions in higher education are relatively easy to find online. While the numbers from industry would be valuable as well, it poses a much harder task because the data on industry lab managers and other leaders are not easily located in public searches.
For this study, leadership positions in academia include these roles: President/Chancellor, Provost, Vice-Chancellor/Vice-President, Dean, Department Chair/Department Head, or other departmental leader. These titles were the commonly found roles for US institutions.
A major barrier to collecting these data is the temporary nature of common leadership positions in academia. For many, leadership equates to administration. A database search on EBSCO auto-fills “higher education leadership” with “higher education leadership or administration” [19
]. A university president or a provost is a leader. Deans and department heads are also considered leaders. People in such positions in the US often hold the role for no more than three to five years before another individual steps in [20
]. Any census of women in STEM leadership is a snapshot which quickly loses its currency. By the time a researcher has reached the end of a list, the beginning of the list is out of date.
This study does not claim to be a complete census of women in STEM who are leaders. Rather, it is a mostly random sample of female leaders in schools and departments across a one-year timeframe. While the data lack longitudinal precision, it does give us an idea about the representation of women in STEM leadership roles, which has simply not been available before.
Along with women in STEM-specific leadership roles, it is also interesting to look for women in general academic leadership positions who had a STEM background. Looking from both directions (leadership to STEM, and STEM to leadership) gives a richer view for study.
All data were collected in the calendar year 2017. Schools were chosen based on “top school” lists in the US for the most current year available; sources are provided. Departments chosen randomly were selected from online lists of departments. These sources were what students would encounter and use rather than formal lists such as the US Department of Education listing. This also provides more consistency when comparing to international lists. Each school on the various lists was found online, and the appropriate person (chair, dean, president, etc.) was located from the school’s directory. This allowed the researcher to determine the person’s gender.
An important caveat: though the article uses the words “gender” and “sex”, in this article, for simplicity’s sake, what was actually examined was an individual’s gender presentation as determined based on a combination of factors: name, picture, and pronouns. Any time the author felt uncertain as to an individual’s gender presentation, she double-checked her impression with another person.
Data were gathered from the following types of schools:
Because the biological sciences are so broad, two “top school” lists were merged; department names were varied, including Biology, Microbiology, Ecology, and Cell Biology among others.
To determine if a leader had a STEM background, a web search was conducted to find the leader’s Curriculum Vitae (CV). The fields of the person’s degrees were determined; if any of their degrees were in the standard STEM fields, they were considered to have a STEM background. STEM here includes mathematics and associated fields (e.g., statistics), engineering and technology, the physical and biological sciences, and veterinary/health sciences. Medicine and social sciences were not included for this analysis.
3.1. Institutional Leadership
The leadership of the top STEM schools in the US [23
] exhibits a higher proportion of women at the top of the organizational chart than in mid-level positions (Table 1
). A background in STEM was common among the institutional leaders in these institutions; a reassuring trend for schools known for their STEM areas. It is noteworthy that there was a higher proportion of women at the highest level of leadership as compared to the next two levels down.
Not all leaders have easily accessible biographies that allow for a determination of any STEM background; when the number of available instances of STEM backgrounds is different from the number of people in the group, the total of available biographies is listed in parentheses. The deans of STEM colleges were not checked for a STEM background; most deans are drawn from the disciplines within their college.
As a contrast to the STEM schools, the top liberal arts schools in the US [24
] were also examined for the background of their uppermost leaders, as were the women’s colleges [25
] (Table 2
). Only the President/Chancellor level was examined because these institutions tended to be smaller, and many do not have a Provost- or Dean-level position. Likewise, the women’s colleges in the US were examined only for the top leadership position.
Not surprisingly, the liberal arts schools and women’s colleges have a stronger representation of women at their highest leadership position.
Many of the top leaders at all of these institutions had a STEM background; among Chancellors/Presidents, a higher percentage of the women had a STEM degree. In the US, 30% of women’s PhDs are in STEM and 56% of men’s PhDs are STEM [26
]. From this small sample, it looks like a STEM degree may be more important or helpful for women moving into peak leadership roles. In a study of female university presidents, Madsen notes that “All of these presidents either majored or stated that they would have majored…in math or science.” [27
] (p. 94) This is another place where studying the intersection of leadership, gender, and STEM is very important, both so that we can offer these women more tools to perform their jobs and so that we can help others replicate their successes.
3.2. Departmental Leadership
The position of department chair or department head (used interchangeably here) provided the largest and richest dataset. This paper examines two sets of departments: randomly chosen from across the US [28
], and from lists of the top departments in the world [32
]. Only the US departments from the top school lists were examined, for consistency with the other data. Lists of institutions are available in the Appendix A Table A1
and Table A2
(with the non-US schools not included in this study). This study only looked at four STEM fields: math, chemistry, biology, and physics, for simplicity’s sake, as engineering departments are often split up into separate subfields. The only previous study with any data on STEM department chair demographics, from 2004 [37
], found 2.5% of women as chairs of engineering departments. Technology as its own discipline was not studied because it is rarely its own department. Table 3
lists the number of women and men as department chair in a sampling of science and mathematics fields.
It was disappointing to see that the higher prestige departments had fewer women for math and chemistry. Biology’s numbers stayed consistent, and physics surprisingly had a higher percentage. No field had more than 30% women in the chair position. Table 4
compares these percentages with the percentage of women earning PhDs in the field in the US in 2014 and 2004 [26
]. The data from 2014 were chosen as they provided the most recent available numbers for women in the requisite fields. Since department chairs are typically associate professors or full professors, 2004 data were included as well since many PhD graduates from that year would now be eligible to be chair.
When comparing the representation of women as chair to the awarded PhDs, we see that the percentage of women as chair is significantly lower than the percentage earning PhDs, either in recent years or in the previous decade. Physics again is the exception, and in physics, the small proportion of women in the field as a whole may be causing the difference. From a study in 2004, female PhDs showed a marked inclination to go into academia (68%) rather than industry (5%) [26
]. Later data for 2014 [26
] have somewhat more women (22%–26%) employed in academia than men (12%–13%). This suggests that women are present in the departments, and eligible for these positions, but are not represented equitably in the department leadership.
This study determined the representation of women in a sampling of different STEM and academic leadership positions. The proportion of women in leadership positions within each given field (department chair) is significantly lower than the proportion of women earning PhDs in those same fields. Women are very under-represented as a whole in higher education leadership such as dean, provost, president/chancellor, holding between 1/4 and 1/3 of those positions. Among the people in these positions, the number who have STEM backgrounds varies widely by school as we might expect to see given the makeup of their differing faculties. At liberal arts and women’s colleges, leaders with STEM backgrounds were rare. At schools with a strong STEM reputation, most leaders did have a background in those areas.
To date, we have had no knowledge of what the representation of women in STEM leadership roles is like since this has not been previously examined. By taking this first step in finding out how many women are leaders in the STEM fields, we can move on to further study, for example, by examining the experiences of these women through surveys or other means. A clear next step would be a more intentional sampling of leadership and departments.
There is currently a strong business interest in developing women as leaders: try a web search for “women in leadership” and there are many articles (in the US) on how to get more women into leadership roles. There are numerous conferences and workshops on the subject. Yet the same search in an educational database provides sparse information. Even the American Association of University Women cites industry and business studies in their “Barriers and Bias” report on women in leadership [38
]. Despite the easily discoverable directory information from academia, we have little information on women’s leadership in the academy [39
]. And there is nothing at all for women’s leadership in STEM [40
If we are to achieve gender equity in the STEM fields, the equity must extend to all levels and roles. To date, we have not even looked at the numbers of women in leadership in STEM. Now that we know that women are not in leadership at the rate we would expect, we can move on to asking “why?” What factors are causing the lower proportion of women in leadership? Looking at the general research on gender and leadership can provide useful guidance.
An example is to consider if women in STEM fields are more or less likely to aspire to leadership positions. Stereotype threat [41
] is one concern in this area: when people are reminded of stereotypes (such as girls cannot do math), people tend to perform to the stereotype. Women do more poorly in math, white men do more poorly at basketball. We know that stereotype threat can lower women’s aspirations to leadership [42
], and STEM is strong in stereotypes supporting men. Thus, it is possible that women in STEM have lower ambitions to leadership because of the field itself.
This study has shown that women are under-represented in STEM leadership positions in US academia. Given that women are not in leadership at the same proportion, we can next start examining the factors that are producing this difference. Learning about the barriers and the assistance women in STEM leadership have encountered will help in supporting women who are starting on the path to higher-level leadership positions or looking to move upwards into higher leadership positions. These are important goals as moving towards equitable representation of women in leadership means moving towards more equitable STEM culture as a whole.