HomeLearning CenterWomen Leaders Emerge in Politics, But What About Academia, Business?

Women Leaders Emerge in Politics, But What About Academia, Business?

From the historic election of Boston Mayor Michelle Wu to the incredible success of women in the recent primaries for statewide offices, Massachusetts’ voters have delivered a clear message: Women have fully arrived as accepted — perhaps even now expected — leaders of the Commonwealth. The state stands on the brink of having a historic majority of women statewide office holders in 2023.

Yet this feat for women in the political arena leaves unanswered a related question: Will the state see similar progress in its other institutions? Will we finally move toward greater gender parity in the corporate C-suite and at the uppermost rungs of academia where women’s representation remains disturbingly small?

Time will tell, but one thing is already certain: Decisions about who will fill these executive roles won’t be made by popular vote. The political world may pick leaders in a democratic process, but the selection of university presidents and corporate CEOs lies in the hands of an elite group of decision makers who are far less accountable to public sentiment.

Hopefully, these decision makers will take the hint: The Massachusetts public believes women make strong and decisive leaders — and the excuses for not having them are wearing thin.

In politics, women have made steady strides in recent years. Every election cycle sees more women—particularly women of color and LGBTQ candidates—running for office. We’ve witnessed historic victories for women across party lines, from state legislatures to the US Congress. This year, a record number of women are running for governor—and voters (energized by concern over reproductive rights) will likely choose many of them for the job. Maura Healey is poised to become the Commonwealth’s first woman and LGBTQ+ governor.

Of course, women still face a steep climb before they claim a fully equal share of top political roles in the nation at large. But the momentum is building, and more equitable representation appears to be within reach. In other institutions? Unfortunately, not so much.

In 2018, the Eos Foundation launched the Women’s Power Gap Initiative to quantify precisely how underrepresented women are in uppermost ranks of the corporate and the academic worlds, both here and nationwide. One of our first research projects in 2019 examined the leadership of the 25 largest Massachusetts-based public companies. Fourteen of the companies had no women at all among their highest paid executives. We will be releasing a new corporate report in February, and – spoiler alert – not much has changed in corporate Massachusetts since then.

Another Women’s Power Gap report examined top universities, where the picture is similarly grim. Currently, among our eight elite research universities (Boston College, Boston University, Brandeis, Harvard, Massachusetts Institute for Technology, Northeastern, Tufts, University of Massachusetts, Amherst), there are no women presidents and five of these schools have never had a woman leader. Our national report found that women of color held only 5 percent  of the presidencies among elite research universities.

We’ve heard myriad explanations for the paucity of top women chief executives in the corporate and academic worlds: Some contend that they face a “pipeline issue” and can’t find the women. However, our research has demonstrated that the higher education pipeline has long been filled – women account for nearly 40 percent of provosts and deans in these universities (the feeder positions) yet hold only 22 percent of the presidents’ offices. Research suggests that unconscious bias plays a role in the final selection process for presidents and chief executives.

CommonWealth Magazine

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