Women’s leadership is vital in the evolving landscape of higher education

The higher education sector is facing unprecedented changes since the pandemic, with technology evolving at a faster rate than ever. Becky Takeda-Tinker and Jenna Tarleton show that women can play a pivotal role in leading the way through this new normal


22 Feb 2024
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Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

Colorado State University Global

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Following the technology-driven advances that resulted from the pandemic, all industries, including higher education, have evolved at faster rates than before. This trend will only gain momentum, particularly challenging colleges and universities. Their work is increasingly evaluated by industry leaders and learners for its applicability to meet workforce needs.

US institutions continue to face unprecedented challenges when it comes to potential learner perception of the value of higher education, which impacts enrolment and retention. Because of this, it is critical that we ensure that women not only have a seat at the table but are also at the helm, helping lead universities through dynamic times.

Here, we explore the historical experiences, research findings and the broader advantages of placing women in leadership roles, especially during periods of dynamic change, to encourage institutional leaders and board members to give closer consideration to female candidates.

Leading in a turbulent landscape

After the Second World War, US higher education boomed. The GI Bill provided veterans with funds for higher education, and federal and state funding for institutions grew rapidly. Over the next 75 years, however, not much changed in the landscape. More recently, however, the US market and consumer behaviour has shifted the public perception of higher education’s value.

As we continue to work to face this new thinking head-on, it is imperative that college and university leaders:

  • be strategic about the programmes they offer
  • consider the return-on-investment that their programmes provide, such as the job-ready skills they teach and the professions they prepare learners to enter
  • develop genuine partner relationships with industry leaders to ensure that what they are providing learners truly matches gaps in company, industry and workforce needs.

Gender diversity and institutional success

To address these changes, different types of higher education leaders may also be necessary. Yet when it comes to senior-level leadership roles, in recent years men have still outnumbered women two to one in the presidency, and women of colour accounted for a little more than one out of every 10 presidents.

Fortunately, to help us navigate these unprecedented times in higher education, there are numerous studies that have found positive correlations between gender diversity in leadership and institutional success, including profitability and value creation. Interestingly, it has also been found that executive teams of outperforming companies have more women in executive line roles versus staff roles. According to the American Psychology Association, psychological research shows that female leaders help to increase productivity, enhance collaboration, inspire institutional dedication and improve fairness.

According to the National Institutes of Health and Stanford Medicine, researchers have found inherent variances in brain anatomy between genders, which impacts behaviours and cognitive task abilities. Their research uncovered that, adjusted for total brain size, a woman’s hippo­campus – the part of the brain critical to learning – is comparatively larger than a man’s, and women’s brains consistently showed more strongly coordinated activity between the right and left hemispheres. Additionally, they found that women excelled in several measures of verbal ability, reading comprehension and writing ability, perceptual speed, and in retrieving information from long-term memory.

In grappling with today’s new challenges, leadership teams can benefit from ensuring a diversity of thinking, behaviours and abilities, as such configurations can bring in myriad new perspectives, ideas and solutions. Institutions can create a foundation for success through team composition, providing higher levels of creativity, engagement, collaboration, clarity and productivity. In turn, they can help engage a broader population of potential students and better address their diverse needs, increasing retention and programme completion rates.

A platform to support new thinking

Leaders who bring a variety of skills, experiences and perspectives can also foster improved problem-solving and decision-making. Amid demands for faster change than the higher education sector has previously experienced, diverse leadership teams may also be better positioned to address the multifaceted needs of a diverse student body.

The American Council on Education highlights that female leaders in higher education often prioritise issues related to inclusivity, such as diversity in faculty and student bodies. This commitment to inclusivity can then enhance leadership team composition, leading to better outcomes and improved learner educational experiences. The presence of women at the top levels of leadership, particularly if institutions have not had them prior or recently, provides a platform that can support new ways of thinking and tackling problems. Universities will then be better prepared to face the challenges now and ahead.

The inclusion of women in leadership roles within the higher education industry is not merely a matter of achieving gender parity. It is a strategic decision for the advancement of academia. Historical experiences, coupled with compelling research findings, underscore the importance of diverse leadership in fostering innovation, inclusivity and success. Through a multifaceted approach to diverse leadership, institutions can play a vital role in shaping the future of the sector and its ability to evolve to meet the changing needs of learners in a technology-infused marketplace.

Becky Takeda-Tinker is president and CEO, and Jenna Tarleton is the associate director of communications and external relations, both at CSU Global.

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See our International Women’s Day spotlight for more advice and resources from women leaders in higher education.


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