Women’s Status in Higher Education: Equity Matters

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Elizabeth J. Allan, University of Maine
Guest contributor

he excerpt below is the Executive Summary of the ASHE’s Higher Education Report: Volume 37, Number 1, Women’s Status in Higher Education: Equity Matters, by Elizabeth J. Allan. It is from the Wiley Online Library.

Significant gains have been made in women’s access to and representation in higher education. Although they are important, focus on these improvements provides only a partial picture of gender equity and inequity. Taken alone, enrollment data tend to eclipse other factors that shape women’s experiences in higher education. For instance, aggregate enrollment data do not portray the persistent lack of gender parity among students studying engineering, computer science, and other science and technology fields, nor do they depict the quality of classroom and campus experiences. Women studying and working in postsecondary institutions continue to bump against glass ceilings and sticky floors, they experience pay disparities and the threat and reality of sexual harassment, and violence continues to interfere with workplace and living environments on campus.  

Why Should We Care?

Lack of equity in higher education can have far-reaching and negative consequences for learning environments, quality of life, and career satisfaction of both women and men studying and working in academic institutions. This monograph foregrounds gains made and shared challenges women face while also acknowledging how race, social class, and other aspects of identity intersect with sex and gender and contribute to shaping one’s professional status in profound ways. Literature related to women’s access and representation in higher education, experiences of campus climate, and predominant strategies employed to enhance gender equity in U.S. higher education are reviewed.

Analyzing Power and Change

A range of theoretical frames in feminism offers diverse approaches to conceptualizing power, understanding complexities of inequity, and advancing strategies for change. Feminist theories developed and refined over the last century provide a set of lenses to analyze oppression and promote equity in a range of contexts, including higher education. This monograph makes the case that drawing on a range of diverse feminist theories can help broaden and deepen analysis of persistent equity problems and, in turn, enhance the likelihood of finding more effective solutions.  

Access and Representation

The greatest movement toward numerical parity is among students, where women currently account for 57 percent of undergraduates and are pursuing degrees in a range of disciplines across virtually every type of postsecondary institution. In fact, women have become the majority of degree earners in nearly every level of postsecondary education, except Ph.D. and M.D. programs (King, 2010). It remains the case, however, that women are heavily concentrated in particular fields, earning a majority of their degrees in health professions, psychology, education, other social sciences, and the humanities. Patterns of inequity are typically amplified for women of color. Lack of parity also is noted in research related to student engagement and cocurricular activities, including athletics.

Representation of faculty, staff, and administrators reflects persistent gaps in equity for women in higher-ranking positions such as full professorships or provost and in doctoral-granting research universities. The same trends apply to the representation of women senior administrators, presidents, and members of governing boards (Cook and Cordova, 2007; Glazer-Raymo, 2008c; King and Gomez, 2008; Touchton, Musil, and Campbell, 2008).  

Campus Climates

For women students, classroom climates, men’s violence, harassment, and romance culture remain climate-related problems. For faculty, staff, and senior administrators, challenges related to work and family balance, the “ideal worker norm,” conceptualizations of leadership, occupational segregation, and salary inequity are often additional problems. They are frequently compounded for women of color, first-generation women, lesbian, and disabled women, who must also navigate the climate-related challenges that emerge from workplaces and learning environments that privilege white, middle-class, able-bodied, and heterosexual norms. Expanded understandings of equity (those that incorporate campus climate) have called for expanded thinking and strategy development beyond increasing the numbers of women in the pipeline (White, 2005).  

Strategies to Enhance Women’s Status

A range of approaches exists for promoting gender equity in higher education. The review of change strategies, however, suggests a continued strong reliance on liberal feminist perspectives. Enhanced recruitment, increasing availability of team sports, implementation and enforcement of antidiscrimination policies, “grooming mentoring” and professional development to widen the pool of qualified applicants all reflect liberal feminist conceptualizations of power as a resource to be more evenly distributed between men and women in higher education.

Other types of feminist influences are evident in common strategies that include the establishment and support of women’s student centers, women’s colleges, feminist research and writing groups, advocacy of collective decision making and generative approaches to leadership, networks of women, a focus on community, and empowerment of women.  


Much has been learned about women’s status in higher education over the past two decades, yet further research is needed to analyze gaps across identity differences like race, sexual identity, and disability and to better understand factors that both impede and accelerate the pace of change along the path to truly equitable representation for all women students, staff, faculty, and administrators in higher education. Familiarity with a range of feminist theories can help broaden perspectives on power and causes of inequity and help expand change strategies.

Three key recommendations emerge from this analysis of the literature: (1) Promote and support opportunities to learn more about women’s experiences in general and in higher education in particular, (2) analyze gender equity problems and solutions through multiple feminist frames; and (3) develop and implement change strategies that reflect diverse feminist perspectives. Analyzing the nature of inequity from multiple perspectives can help broaden the repertoire of strategies available to sustain current gains and ideally, increase the pace of change toward equity.

This posting originally appeared on ‘Tomorrow’s Professor Blog at Stanford University. Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company. All rights reserved.

Elizabeth J. Allan, the author of Women’s Status in Higher Education: Equity Matters, is an associate professor of Higher Education Leadership at the University of Maine.


Equity Matters


Gender equityStatus of women in the academy