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Utah makes major progress for women's representation in higher education leadership roles

By Lauren Bennett, KSL.com | Posted - Apr. 21, 2021 at 7:11 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — In 2014, 12.5% of presidents of degree-granting colleges and universities in Utah were women. In 2017 that number had grown to 25%. Today, 50% of the presidents are women.

The numbers come from a report released Wednesday from the Utah Women and Leadership Project, which has been tracking the status of the state's women leaders in education since its first study was published in 2014.

Utah is even ahead of the national average of 33% for the number of women in president positions at degree-giving universities. It's clear that state leaders and others have focused on this issue since the first report, said Susan Madsen, founder and director of the project.

In order to progress even more, she noted it's important to focus on the systems currently in place that give women opportunities to apply for these leadership roles. When institutions bring out-of-state or outside hires straight into upper management roles rather than looking inward, it can harm in-state women's chances at a job.

"The rising trend in Utah to hire talent from outside the state may especially negatively impact the pipeline to leadership for women in higher education who live in Utah," researchers note in the report. One main reason behind the concept is that women tend to be bound more tightly to a location than men, meaning they aren't able to relocate to other states as easily due to familial obligations, according to research cited in the report.

"When we look at the pipeline and really are preparing women from within the institution, it does give us a disadvantage when we are bringing people from outside and not really using the pipeline of people from within the organization," Madsen said.

Focusing on developing and preparing internal employees to one day be qualified to fill these leadership roles is key, according to Madsen, and it's exactly what they've tried to do at the Utah Board of Higher Education.

"We really appreciate the work that our institutions are doing around a really focused approach of not only recruiting and hiring females in leadership positions but developing females for future leadership positions," said Dave Woolstenhulme, commissioner of the board.

Woolstenhulme said that pipeline is exactly what they've been developing at their office with a mentorship program that pairs potential leaders with current leaders in key positions across the state.

"That's actually been a really powerful tool because, first of all, it helps us identify talent and then we know that when they do step into leadership roles, they're going to be better prepared, and because of that our system is going to be better off for it," he explained. The board of higher education has even addressed diversity on its own board, which is now made up of 44% women — above the national average of about 39%. That number has increased since 2014 and 2017, when it was made up of about 31% women.

Creating and managing accessible pipelines for women to get into leadership roles in academia is important, Woolstenhulme said, and he pointed to Utah State University President Noelle Cockett as a great example of this pipeline in action — she started as a professor and rose through the ranks, becoming a dean and later the provost for the school, before becoming president in 2017.

"That is exactly the type of trajectory we would like to see in our mentorship program," he added.

Ruth Watkins, the former president of the University of Utah, also was hired from within after serving as the provost at the university. She recently left her post and the search for her replacement is ongoing.

While there is progress to be celebrated, there are other areas where Utah still needs improvement. The state is still lacking women in leadership roles at technical colleges, where only about 12.5% of presidents are women. The lower numbers mirror the trend seen in the technology industry where gender disparity has been an issue, according to Madsen.

Additionally, salary reports cited in the report show men outearn women by about 8% across top administrative positions at higher education institutions, something that Madsen said needs to be resolved in tandem with organizations shifting their focus to diversity and representation in leaders.

Education can really lead the way when it comes to diversity and highlighting its ripple effect of positive change, Madsen said.

"It really does help both men and women students to see women in those roles, so that they can find that as more normal," she explained. "Sexism starts going down and those in education can play such a critical role in changing society for the better, for equity for diversity and inclusion."

Students are the future of the world and the future CEOs, doctors and government leaders, she noted.

Over the last seven years, Utah has made progress that Woolstenhulme and Madsen hope to see continue and advance even more.

"I hope we get more momentum," Woolstenhulme said. "It would be great to continue the progress, but I'm not sure we're doing enough yet. So we will definitely continue to do what we're doing and, hopefully, even look at other opportunities."

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