Colleges welcome an increase in female presidents
Published: Friday, March 15, 2013
Updated: Friday, March 15, 2013 13:03
It is almost impossible to mention President-Elect Alison Byerly without saying she will be Lafayette’s first female president.
When Byerly assumes office in July, Lafayette will join nearly 25 percent of American colleges and universities boasting a female president. Although it may seem unbalanced, the number has more than doubled since 1989, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
“[The increase in female presidents] represents the number of women rising in ranks of academia,” Byerly said.
Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Mary Armstrong believes anti-discrimination laws have helped women achieve.
“The feminist movement broke down formal and cultural barriers over the last decades,” she said.
Despite the hopeful improvement, many scholars believe women still have a ways to go.
A survey of American college presidents found that female presidents are more likely to get the job by taking a traditional path through higher education. Fewer get the job from outside academia, the American Council on Education (ACE) said.
Woman presidents are also more likely to lead community colleges than large research universities, according to ACE.
Armstrong adds that women can experience an “unconscious stereotype” from both men and women, who may not be aware of any personal bias.
Byerly said she has never felt any animosity from men, although she understands why people can appear hesitant about female presidents. Liberal arts colleges are traditionally male-dominated, and women are taking on new roles, she said.
It seems like an upward trend. Byerly is the Lehigh Valley’s third woman president, joining Cedar Crest College’s Carmen Ambar and Lehigh University’s Alice Gast, who started in 2006.
Gast feels the gender divide began breaking down 40 years ago, when the first female students came to Lehigh.
“I have had some wonderful conversations with alumni who were, at the time, against Lehigh becoming a coeducational institution,” Gast said. “They now think it was a great decision.”
She believes her main challenges are similar to those facing other senior administrators, regardless of gender. Holding a doctorate in chemical engineering, Gast said many of her mentors were men who were “very good at thinking about higher education challenges from a broad perspective.”
Previously Provost and Executive Vice President at Middlebury College, Byerly is ready to take on Lafayette.
“The environment of a liberal arts college is an environment in which you are a part of the community 24 hours a day,” Byerly said. “I try integrating my own family into my work life by bringing my children to events on campus.”
Byerly explained that a small school like Middlebury—and soon Lafayette—would allow her family to make closer personal connections, integrating them into the college’s social picture.
“Dr. Byerly’s greatest asset is simply that she is supremely qualified for her position,” Armstrong said.