Women lead a quarter of the top 200 universities

Data reveals that 48 universities in the top 200 have female presidents or vice-chancellors

March 6, 2023
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View the full list of the top universities led by women

A quarter of the world’s top universities are led by women and by mid-year four of the top five universities are set to have a woman at the helm.

As of February 2023, women held the position of vice-chancellor or the equivalent at 48 of the top 200 universities, data gathered by Times Higher Education show.

There are 12 per cent more women in these positions than there were last year, and 41 per cent more than five years ago. The rise is driven by appointments in the US and Germany. 

In the US, data shows that 16 of the country’s universities ranked among the global top 200 have female presidents, compared with 13 last year. The latest addition is at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which now has Sally A. Kornbluth at the helm, making it the highest-ranking female-led university in the US.

Meanwhile, five leading German universities are headed by women, three more than last year. Among these, three women broke the streak of centuries of male leadership.

The University of Tübingen’s Karla Pollmann, the University of Freiburg’s Kerstin Krieglstein and the Technical University of Berlin’s Geraldine Rauch have become the first women to preside over their institutions.

In Asia, neuroscientist Nancy Ip took charge as president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, becoming the first and only woman to head a publicly-funded university in the city’s history. Ip’s appointment came nearly three decades after she began working at the institution, making her its fifth president.

Towards the end of February, in another part of Asia, a woman took the reins of a Middle Eastern university as acting president.

King Abdulaziz University, the largest university in Saudi Arabia, has an interim female leader after Abdul Rahman bin Obaid Al Youbi was removed from the post of president by royal decree over allegations of embezzlement, forgery and money laundering of university funds. Hana Abdullah Al-Nuaim, the former vice-president of the women’s campus, has assumed the leadership role.

Of the 27 countries that featured universities in the top 200, 12 countries (44 per cent) did not have any women leading their top institutions. Finland, the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa each has a single woman-led university in the top 200.

By July 2023, four of the top five universities in the THE World University Rankings will likely have a woman at the helm as several key appointments will formalise into positions. 

At Harvard University, the second highest-ranked institution, Claudine Gay will replace Lawrence Bacow, becoming the first black woman in the job. In the same period, Deborah Prentice will start as vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, which holds the number three spot in the World University Rankings. They will join MIT’s Kornbluth at MIT and the University of Oxford’s Irene Tracey as female leaders of a top five institution.

In addition, the London School of Economics’ Baroness Minouche Shafik is due to move the US to lead Columbia University, and New York University has named Linda Mills, the social scientist known for her research into domestic violence, its president designate.

Both Shafik and Mills will be the first women to lead their institutions.

In the UK, eight of the 28 universities in the top 200 are run by women.

Among women who started as vice-chancellors in the past year is the University of Bristol’s Evelyn Welch. She recalls her career in the early 2000s, when, she says, there were hardly any women in senior positions in higher education.

When Welch was pro vice-chancellor for teaching and learning at the University of Sussex, she felt a “strong pressure” to “demonstrate on behalf of women, generally, that we could do an excellent job”.

“Because it is now normal for a woman to be part of senior leadership, actually, I can make mistakes. I can be human,” she says. “I’m not a symbol. I’m just aiming to be the very best leader that I can be in my own right. And I do think that that makes a difference.”

Welch also describes an “external categorisation” of female leaders that places an extra weight of expectation on their shoulders.

As an example, she says: “When you are seen to be forceful, that could be regarded as a sign of clarity in a male leader and bullying in a female leader. So the same kind of behaviour is read differently, depending on whether you’re male or female.”

When faced with accusations that stem from categorisations of women, Welch says, women need to identify where those are coming from and “address them head-on”.

When it comes to leaders dealing with concerns around supporting staff and staff pay, for example, she says there is often an expectation that women will be “softer” in their approach.

“When female leaders are not perceived as supporting staff or supporting students in exactly the same way as their male counterparts, they get attacked on a personal level far more. It doesn’t mean that men don’t have the same consequences. But I’ve certainly seen that the personalisation of the attack is much more intense.”

Of the top 200 universities, 2.5 per cent (or 10 per cent of female-led institutions) are led by women of colour. “It’s particularly important that Harvard is going to be led by a black woman,” Welch says. “It’s really, really important that this isn’t just about white women gaining prominence. It should be that whatever your background as a woman, you can be successful.”

In 2018, while Welch was working at King’s College London, she helped set up the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, which rallies around issues of gender inequality, including the treatment of female leaders by the media. From that work and from her own journey and conversations with women, she learned that gender equality is “a constant, constant piece of work, and that we mustn’t sit back and say ‘job done’”.


Note: Data correct as of 3 February 2023 and includes acting presidents and vice-chancellors. The female vice-chancellor of Cape Town university Mamokgethi Phakeng has announced she is stepping down. Cape Town has been included in the number of universities with female vice-chancellors. 

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