University President Mary Sue Coleman was named the first female president of the University of Michigan in 2002. At the time when she announced her retirement last April, seven of her 12 executive officers were female as well.
While this combination brings the University to the forefront of changing gender demographics in higher education, Coleman does not define her presidency by this milestone.
“I think these jobs are very hard and I think they are equally hard for men and women,” Coleman said. “When I look at some of my colleagues I don’t think there is a female way of being a president and a male way. I think there is much more commonality and more differences individual to individual then there is across gender roles.”
In a 2008 speech to the Women as Global Leaders conference at Zayed University in Dubai, Coleman said there has been drastic change over the last 40 years in the influence of women leaders.
“I am proud to have been the first woman to lead the University of Iowa, and now the University of Michigan; I believe my leadership helps open the doors for women at other universities,” she said.
According to the American Council on Education, in 1986, only ten percent of university presidents were female. Today, that number has risen to 26 percent.
Lucie Lapovsky, the former president of Mercy College and the current president of Higher Education Resource Services, an organization dedicated women’s leadership, said the number of women presidents increases around one percent every two years.
“It is really hard to pinpoint exactly what it is, but statistically there is something wrong in the system,” Lapovsky said. “There is no reason that there aren’t 50 percent women presidents. We have more college degrees and equal amount of doctorate degrees.”
University Provost Martha Pollack attributed the fewer number of women in top leadership roles to a “pipeline effect.”
“I think overall, historically, there have been more men in academia than women and so then of course there is a pipeline issue as you move into administration roles, you are drawing from the faculty,” Pollack said.
Coleman broke new ground in 2002 when she began her tenure as the University’s first female president. Today though, her status as a female leader is not particularly unusual among other Big Ten Universities.
Sally Mason succeeded Coleman as president of the University of Iowa, Lou Anna Simon is the president of Michigan State University, Rebecca Blank is the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Phyllis Wise is the chancellor of the University of Illinois.
In the University’s administration, Coleman created a strong executive team not by looking for gender, but by judging ability.
“I have had great men provosts and I have had great women provosts,” Coleman said. “I have had men and women in all those positions. What you try to do is try to pick the best person. You don’t look and say I have got to have a woman for this position. You never do that.”
The trend of female empowerment is increasing in other fields outside of academia, as well.
When recently appointed General Motors CEO Mary Barra was selected as this year’s spring commencement speaker, Coleman said Barra likely doesn’t define herself as General Motors’ first female leader.
“I know she probably downplays the symbolism of the role, but I do think it’s significant,” Coleman said in a March interview with The Michigan Daily.
Moreover, the landscape is changing at the University. E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, worked with four male presidents before Coleman’s arrival.
“There has been something easier, in some ways, about understanding complexity when I have been working with women,” Harper said. “I think it is because they just get human development, and the ways in which students develop, in a fundamentally different way.”
Harper said despite the growing number of women in leadership roles, gender continues to influence perceptions.
“What your social identity is plays a role in how you lead and how people receive you as leading,” Harper said.
In Coleman’s 2008 speech in Dubai, she acknowledged that the decisions of female leaders are often viewed through a gendered lens, but is also rooted in the general scrutiny received by men and women assuming a presidency.
“Whether I am defending our policies or trying to hire a new football coach, I am subject to the most outrageous e-mails, letters and commentary on radio talk shows,” Coleman said. “I am ‘stupid’ … ‘ignorant’ … ‘unable to appreciate sports’ because I am a woman … and profanities I won’t repeat.”
Cynthia Wilbanks, vice president for government relations, attributed the high number of female officers to the types of role models women have at the University, as well as programs through entities such as the University’s Center for the Education of Women.
“I see an enormous sensitivity and outreach to develop leadership for both men and women,” Wilbanks said. “But I think there have been very specific programs developed to support women who seek leadership roles.”
Lisa Rudgers, vice president for global initiatives and strategic communications, credited colleagues such as Harper and Wilbanks for paving the way.
“I have never felt there were any barriers because I am a women executive officer, but I credit that in a large measure to those who came before me and who shoulders I stand upon,” she said.
Coleman said is encouraged by the fact that currently many more provosts and deans are women, providing increased opportunities to assume leadership roles.
“I think what has brought opportunity for women is simply being in the pool and being considered,” Coleman said. “They still have to be the best. No one is going to give you a job just because you are male or female, these days. I think Schlissel will view it the same way.”