World’s top 10 universities led by women

World University Rankings analysis reveals the best female-led institutions

June 19, 2015

Just 14 per cent of the top 200 universities in the world are led by women.

It is a damning statistic and one that proves – if you needed any more evidence alongside the oft-reported gender pay gap and the dearth of women in senior positions – that gender inequality is still rife in the academy.

However, there are examples of top universities that are leading the way when it comes to promoting women to the upper echelons of their institution.

Ten universities which feature in the top 60 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings are led by women – and three of these female leaders are the third woman to head up their institution.

Last month the University of Oxford also announced that it will have a female vice-chancellor for the first time in its 767-year history.

This list is based on research conducted by Miguel Antonio Lim, EU Marie Curie doctoral fellow at Aarhus University in Copenhagen, who used data from the 2014-15 World University Rankings.

10. University of California, Davis

Chancellor Linda Katehi University of California Davis
University of California Davis

Chancellor: Linda P.B. Katehi

Appointed: 2009

Current world rank: =55

The University of California, Davis appointed its first female chancellor – Linda Katehi – six years ago.

Since her appointment, the institution has made progress in hiring more female staff and promoting opportunities for women in the STEM disciplines.

Professor Katehi, who was one of only two women in the electrical engineering faculty class during her undergraduate degree at the Polytechnic University in Athens in 1972, told Times Higher Education that female role models and dedicated mentors are “absolutely critical” to increasing the number of women in the ranks of university leadership.

“The challenge of course is that those role models and potential mentors simply don’t exist or are few and far between at many of the nation’s colleges and universities,” she said.

“I think it falls to those of us in leadership positions to go the extra mile and reach out beyond our own institutions to create a more diverse cadre of future leaders.”

9. Brown University

Patrick O'Connor

President: Christina Hull Paxson

Appointed: 2012

Current world rank: 54

Christina Hull Paxson is the third woman in a row to lead Brown University, which has had a female president since 2000.

Professor Paxson was previously at Princeton University for 25 years, most recently as dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Her immediate predecessor at Brown was Ruth J. Simmons, who was not only the first female president at the university when she assumed office in 2001, but also the first African American president of an Ivy League institution.

8. University of Manchester

Vice-chancellor: Nancy Rothwell

Appointed: 2010

Current world rank: =52

Dame Nancy Rothwell became the first woman to lead the University of Manchester in 2010.

Professor Rothwell is one of just two female leaders in the top 200 of the world rankings who is an academic in medical science, while the University of Manchester is one of only four UK universities on the list that has a female leader.

Speaking to THE, Professor Rothwell said the reason why there are fewer female leaders is “most likely a combination of factors: huge time commitment, few role models, lack of confidence”.

She added: “I have certainly never felt discriminated against but also never planned on being a vice-chancellor.” 

7. McGill University

Christinne Muschi

Vice-chancellor: Suzanne Fortier

Appointed: 2013

Current world rank: 39

Suzanne Fortier became vice-chancellor of McGill University nearly 40 years after graduating with a BSc at the institution, succeeding Heather Munroe-Blum. She is only the fourth alumnus to become principal and the first francophone.

McGill is the third top Canadian institution in the THE World University Ranking and the best university with a female leader in the country. Fortier is one of only two chemistry professors in the elite list of 28 female leaders.

5. University of Wisconsin-Madison


Chancellor: Rebecca Blank

Appointed: 2013

Current world rank: =29

Rebecca Blank told THE that out of all the leadership positions she has had – including serving as acting United States secretary of commerce – being chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison is the first one where she has not once felt like “someone has been treating me differently, testing me or being slightly more dismissive of me because of my gender”.

“I’m the third woman in this job and I think that matters,” she said.

She added that women in more senior positions bear some responsibility for mentoring “non-traditional candidates”.

“As long as people have a view of what a dean or president should look like, women will have difficulty moving into these jobs,” she said.

The university was previously led by Carolyn “Biddy" Martin from 2008 to 2011 and Donna Shalala from 1988 to 1993.

5. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Chancellor: Phyllis Wise

Appointed: 2011

Current world rank: =29

Before taking the helm at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Phyllis Wise was interim president at the University of Washington, becoming the first woman and Asian American to lead the institution.

She said it is critical there is a focus on the steps those in higher education – and particularly women in roles like her own – are taking to “bring balance into the system”.

“Clearly, there is no lack of women in higher education with the intelligence and academic qualifications to do these jobs for any university today. What we can do – and by we, I mean women in leadership roles throughout the academy – is to help each other and to help those women who are earlier in their careers to be ready to walk through these doors when they open,” she said.

4. University of Washington

Interim president: Ana Mari Cauce

Appointed: 2015

Current world rank: 26

Ana Mari Cauce became acting president at the University of Washington in March this year after her predecessor Michael Young left to head up Texas A&M University.

For the past three years, Professor Cauce has served as provost – the institution’s chief academic officer – and she is active in encouraging women and underrepresented minorities to pursue careers in the STEM disciplines.

She first joined the institution in 1986 as an assistant professor of psychology.

3. University of Pennsylvania

President: Amy Gutmann

Appointed: 2004

Current world rank: 16

Amy Gutmann is the third woman in a row to lead the University of Pennsylvania, following in the footsteps of Claire Fagin who was interim president in 1993, and Judith Rodin, who began her leadership position in 1994.

Since becoming president in 2004, Professor Gutmann has been an outspoken advocate for increased access to higher education.

2. Imperial College London

President: Alice Gast

Appointed: 2014

Current world rank: =9

Alice Gast is the first female president at Imperial College London and its 16th leader overall.

The university has won several awards for promoting women in fields where they are currently underrepresented, including medicine and aeronautics.

It also gives its own prizes and mentorship to female students excelling in subjects that are typically male-dominated , and has a fellowship award scheme for academics returning from maternity and adoption leave.

1. Harvard University

President: Drew Gilpin Faust

Appointed: 2007

Current world rank: 2

The top institution in the world led by a woman is Harvard University.

Drew Gilpin Faust is the first female president of the university and the fifth woman to lead an Ivy League institution.

Professor Faust is also Harvard’s first president since 1672 without an undergraduate or graduate degree from Harvard. She gained a BA from Bryn Mawr College in 1968, and then undertook an MA and PhD at the University of Pennsylvania.

She was ranked the 33rd most powerful woman in the world by Forbes last year.

During a press conference on campus after she was appointed president, Professor Faust said: "I hope that my own appointment can be one symbol of an opening of opportunities that would have been inconceivable even a generation ago,” adding: "I'm not the woman president of Harvard, I'm the president of Harvard.”

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