Four of the the world’s five highest-ranked universities will be led by a woman by the end of the summer.
This is the highest-ever level of representation of women leaders at elite universities, a high watermark worth celebrating ahead of International Women’s Day on Wednesday.
The appointments of Claudine Gay at Harvard and Deborah Prentice at Cambridge – who both take up their posts in July – mean four of the top five universities in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings will be led by women.
Gay and Prentice join Irene Tracey at Oxford and Sally Kornbluth at MIT in leading top-five institutions, leaving Stanford’s Marc Tessier-Lavigne as the only man among their number.
And they are in the vanguard of change that now sees almost a quarter – 48 – of the top 200 ranked universities led by a woman.
But the overall figure disguises the fact that progress is uneven: almost half of the countries represented in the top 200 do not have any women leading their top institutions.
“It’s amazing to see that four of the top five universities in the world will shortly be led by women,” said Rosa Ellis, rankings editor for Times Higher Education. “They will be an inspiration to their staff, students and other universities around the world.”
“While progress is happening, universities, which are the world’s beacons of learning, knowledge and human progress need to do much more to advance women’s roles not just at the top of universities but in every position and in all of its outputs.”
It is now almost 90 years since Kate Galt Zeneis became the first woman president of a public college or university, at what was then called Southeastern Normal College and is now Southeastern Oklahoma State.
But it has taken a long time for women to be given the chance to lead the most prestigious universities.
Oxford, which last year topped the Times Higher Education rankings for a record seventh year in succession, appointed its first female vice-chancellor only in 2016.
Third-ranked Cambridge was one of the first among the elite group, appointing its first female vice-chancellor in 2003, a year before fifth-ranked MIT appointed its first female president and four years before Harvard (2nd) followed suit.
The U.S. is a world leader in female representation at elite university leadership levels, with 16 of its 58 representatives in the top 200 headed by a woman, including 8th ranked University of California, Berkeley, and three Ivy League institutions: Pennsylvania, Cornell and Brown universities.
And the number of top 200 universities led by a woman has risen by more than 40% in the last five years, from 34 in 2018 to 48 now.
But the picture is not uniformly positive. Of the 27 countries represented in the top 200, 12 do not have any women leading their ranked universities.
And just one in 10 of female-led institutions, or 2.5% of the total in the top 200, are led by a woman of color.
There will be some who argue that the number of women at the helm of leading universities is irrelevant, or a distraction from what is really important.
But representation matters, and until women are routinely appointed to leadership positions, then advances such as this will be worth celebrating.