Share this story...
women higher education
Latest News

The number of Utah women in higher education leadership positions improving

Aerial View of Utah State University. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

SALT LAKE CITY — More women are holding higher education leadership positions in Utah, but there continue to be areas of improvement, a 2021 report from the Utah Women & Leadership Project (UWLP) shows.  

In some areas, Utah actually ranks above the national average. For example, 44% of Utah’s State Board of Higher Education are women. Nationally, that number sits at 39.8%. And the number of female representation on the board has increased from 31.6% in both 2014 and 2017, according to UWLP. 

The founder and director of UWLP, Dr. Susan Madsen, said it’s encouraging to see more female representation in higher education because Utah historically lags in that area. 

“I have to say that having so many women presidents in the state of Utah right now, is making a difference,” Madsen told KSL NewsRadio. 

Of Utah’s eight public universities and colleges (University of Utah, Utah State University, Utah Valley University, Weber State University, Southern Utah University, Dixie State University, Snow College, and Salt Lake Community College), four have female presidents (SLCC, U of U, USU, and UVU).

(It’s worth noting U of U President Ruth Watkins will be stepping down from her position in April.)

However, that number has steadily increased from 25% in 2017 and 12.5% in 2014, according to previous UWLP reports. 

“I have to say that we’re still lagging [female representation] in most areas behind the nation,” Madsen said. “But the exciting thing is that we’re making progress,” especially in education.

Pitfalls for women in higher education

Despite the improvements for women leadership in higher education, the report shows Utah has backtracked in some areas. 

For example, fewer women serve on boards of trustees for colleges and universities. Membership is down from 38.3% in 2017 to 33.6% in 2021.

And research-intensive universities (BYU, U of U, USU) have the lowest percentage of women serving as trustees, with 34.8% overall. 

Among Utah’s technical colleges, women make up 23.1% of trustees or directors. That’s a decrease of  0.9% from UWLP’s 2017 report. 

Utah also falls below the national average (44%) for women in  chief academic officer positions. In Utah, only 20% of women held this role, a big dip from 2017 with 25%.

Women in Utah still fall below national representation (40%) in the vice president role. Currently, 33.3% of women are vice presidents of a higher education institution. Despite being at a lower average, it’s an increase from 18.4% in 2017 and 22.9% in 2014.

Additionally, women in post-secondary education leadership ship position, on average still make less money than their male counterparts.

Across the Utah System of Higher Education’s eight four-year institutions, CUPA-HR 2020 salary reports show men made 8%, or roughly $16,396, more than women in top administrative positions. Salary information was not available for Utah’s private higher education institutions. 

The impacts of female representation in higher education 

Madden said when women hold leadership positions, more women are likely to follow in their footsteps.

“When you have women at the top, it really funnels down into more women in other positions,” Madsen said. 

Specifically, Madsen said a more diverse leadership pool helps mentoring efforts.

“When you have women at the top, they’re typically more aware and more developmental to women,” Madsen explained. “They know that diversity case, and they can just really target on those biases and start moving things forward.” 

It isn’t just about having a female boss, the UWLP study states. Rather, it’s about cultivating a space where everyone feels more represented to output good work. 

“Research findings continue to demonstrate that diverse and inclusive leadership teams produce more creative, innovative, productive, and effective results,” the UWLP report read. “Which makes gender inclusivity in postsecondary educational settings both critical and timely.” 

All in all, the study indicated Utah is a unique spot to change the educational leadership trajectory, and encouraged institutions to do so, in order to “bolster Utah’s workforce and economy, and, most importantly, to open pathways for its community members to pursue a better quality of life.” 

Read the entire report here.