A couple of weeks ago, I got into a discussion with some friends about an article headlined “Where Have All the Women Gone?” As a professor at a Catholic college, I read the article with some interest. In brief, the article discusses two distinct, but related, phenomena: the dwindling number of female presidents at Catholic colleges and the discrepancy between the number of male and female college presidents, in general. As the article explains, the first problem correlates strongly with the shift over the last fifty years in Catholic education from single-sex colleges to co-ed college. Whereas colleges founded by orders of religious sisters and dedicated to educated women tended to have a long history of female presidents (generally from the founding order), as those colleges became co-ed, the gender breakdown of college presidents began to reflect more closely general trends in education. As members of the founding orders became older and older, many of these colleges hired lay people as presidents, the majority of whom were men, which leads to the second phenomenon related to the downward trend of female presidents of Catholic institutions: that more men than women are presidents across the board.

Whereas colleges founded by orders of religious sisters and dedicated to educated women tended to have a long history of female presidents (generally from the founding order), as those colleges became co-ed, the gender breakdown of college presidents began to reflect more closely general trends in education.

The “Pyramid Problem”

That there are more male than female college presidents is not news in the higher education world, and the numbers at Catholic colleges are generally reflective of the state of colleges and universities as a whole: male college presidents outnumber female presidents 3 to 1, and the reasons behind this disparity are complicated. One of the biggest factors is simply that fewer women than men advance far enough in their careers to make a presidency possible.

In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mary Ann Mason calls this “the pyramid problem.” As she notes, the number men and women earning Ph.D.s is generally even, but those numbers shift dramatically in favor of men the higher you get in the academic ranks, from graduate student to instructor, assistant professor, associate professor, and full professor. The reasons for this shift vary. For example, many female academics find it difficult to keep up the rigorous pace of research and teaching required to earn tenure while also starting families and so seek out less rigorous part-time or full-time non-tenure-track jobs, sacrificing career mobility for life balance and flexibility. (I very happily work as a part-time professor, and it works for me, but it means I will likely never advance very far in my career.)

Male college presidents outnumber female presidents 3 to 1, and the reasons behind this disparity are complicated.

Other women find themselves affected by the “trailing spouse” phenomenon. Higher education jobs are notoriously difficult to land, with many more Ph.D.s on the market than available jobs. While almost every professor friend I know has a story about mom or grandma saying, “Oh, there’s a college down the street from me! Why don’t you call them and ask them for a job?” the reality is that, if you want a job as a professor, you had better be willing to move across the country for one. The situation becomes significantly more complicated for an academic couple: the “two body problem.” Since many professors meet their spouses in graduate school, academic couples need to make choices. Should we take the first job that is offered? Should we hold out for a school that has two openings? Should we live apart for a few years, until something opens up? I know couples in each of these situations; sometimes it works out, but often it doesn’t.

The Choice Between Career and Family

None of this is to say that women can’t become successful academics -- only that it often comes at a cost. In her discussion of the pyramid problem, Mason reports that her research found “only one in three women who take a fast-track university job before having a child ever become mothers. Among tenured professors, only 44 percent of women are married with children, compared with 77 percent of men. And women who achieve tenure are more than twice as likely as men to be single 12 years after earning a Ph.D. In addition, women who are married when they begin their faculty careers are much more likely than men in the same position to divorce or separate from their spouses.”

Among tenured professors, only 44 percent of women are married with children, compared with 77 percent of men.

Can women be married with children and have successful academic careers? Of course. I know several professors who are also mothers, but the majority women female professors with tenure who I know have no children or one child; I don’t know any with more than two.

Further, a recent report by the American Council on Education found that men are more likely than women to hold tenured positions, that male professors outearn women by approximately $15,000, that women (as of 2011) held only 21% of college presidencies nationwide, and that female presidents are “less likely than male presidents to be married or have children and are more likely to have altered their careers for their family.”

Why is Having Catholic Female Presidents Important?

But let’s get back to the original point. Yes, there are fewer female than male college presidents across the board, and, yes, there has been a sharp decline in the number of female college presidents at Catholic colleges. I’ve cited a few articles that explain the reasons for these shifts, and there are countless more easily available with a quick Google search, in case anyone would like to learn about this issue.

What does a female president bring to a college -- more specifically, a Catholic college -- that a male president doesn’t?

The bigger question that I think we need to answer, however, is not why are there fewer female presidents, but why does that matter? What does a female president bring to a college -- more specifically, a Catholic college -- that a male president doesn’t? And why should a Catholic college or university be particularly invested in hiring female leaders?

1) Care for the whole person

Certainly, men as well as women are capable of supporting and advancing educational and cultural values that develop the human person in its entirety, but in her essay “Woman’s Value in National Life,” St. Edith Stein argues that women are particularly attuned to the desire of becoming “a complete human being, one who is fully developed in every way; and she would like to help others to become so, and by all means, she would like to do justice to the complete human being whenever she has to deal with persons.

Any strong education institution should share this goal, but Catholic colleges and universities should be particularly concerned with helping students become “complete human beings,” focusing not just intellectual, but also on interpersonal and spiritual achievements.

2) Understanding of challenges of pregnancy and motherhood

A Catholic institution should value family and children and should enact policies, including family leave, adjustments to the tenure clock, convenient, affordable child care, and adjustable class schedules that support staff and students who are pregnant. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in 2014 60% of women who had abortions were in their 20s and 24% of women who had abortions and reported a religion identified as Catholic, so unplanned pregnancy is as significant an issue at Catholic colleges as it is everywhere else. Even female presidents who do not have families are more likely to notice the challenges facing female students and staff than men who have not lived those experience.

Further, in his “Letter to Women,” St. John Paul II argues that the Church has a moral obligation to advance the rights of women in the workplace: “We need only think of how the gift of motherhood is often penalized rather than rewarded, even though humanity owes its very survival to this gift. Certainly, much remains to be done to prevent discrimination against those who have chosen to be wives and mothers. As far as personal rights are concerned, there is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic State.”

As far as personal rights are concerned, there is an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic State." - Pope John Paul II

3) A more inclusive perspective

In a recent New York Times Opinion piece, “What We Lose When We Lose Female Reporters”, journalist Mei Fong argued that the journalism profession suffers when female reporters are not in the field: “More women lessens the preponderance of male viewpoints and allows a clearer presentation of how things are.” The same is true for colleges and universities. While men and women are both capable of attending to women’s rights, it is natural to be more attuned that which affects you. As several recent pieces have pointed out (here and here, for example), Catholic institutions are not immune to issues of sexual assault and discrimination, and have an obligation to protect the dignity of all students.

4) Positive example for female students

When Catholic students see Catholic women in positions of academic leadership, they will see that as a possibility. When they see Catholic women living out St. John Paul II’s call to “make an indispensable contribution to the growth of a culture which unites reason and feeling, to a model of life ever open to the sense of ‘mystery’, to the establishment of economic and political structures ever more worthy of humanity,” they will see the necessity of women Catholic academic culture. They will work to make Catholic college and universities institutions that support women and men not just intellectually, but as whole people who contribute to building a culture and society worthy of sons and daughters of God.

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Theresa Woodhouse

Theresa Woodhouse is married with three children and works part-time as a professor. She enjoys reading, writing, working out, and coffee (so much so that her family has told her she’s never allowed to give it up for Lent). She is writing under a pseudonym and chose the first name because every saint with a version of that name is awesome and the second name because, while she is not “handsome, clever, and rich” like Emma Woodhouse, Emma’s faults are a bit too familiar to her.

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