11/28/2014 05:06 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2015

Women in College Leadership

As you explore options for college, you are likely to ask about programs, affordability, facilities, housing, sports, and safety. Are you, though, asking about leadership?

I believe you should, for who leads our colleges and universities affects decisions from how endowments are invested to which academic programs are prioritized.

Demographics aren't everything. As a college president and a woman, however, I am aware that there are not many of us. According to a 2012 report on American college presidents from the American Council on Education, only 26% are women. Moreover, the rate of change has stalled since the 1990s. "report on American college presidents".

These figures reflect a more general social gender disparity that is important to address because female leadership is critical for building better, more balanced institutions.

A few years ago, a study out of Berkeley showed that companies with one or more women on their corporate boards are significantly more likely to engage in practices that are linked to corporate sustainability, "engage practices that are linked to corporate sustainability". By analogy, colleges and universities may perform better -- educate better -- with more women in leadership positions, including at the top and on the Board of Trustees.

Another kind of leadership to pay attention to as you research colleges is that of students. Here, too, the playing field is unsurprisingly lop-sided. A 2011 report on undergraduate women's leadership at Princeton "report on undergraduate women's leadership at Princeton" (under the leadership of President Shirley M. Tilghman) showed that undergraduate women were less likely to win the highest-level academic honors and fellowships and stand for visible positions like president of co-curricular organizations, even though women were outpacing men academically except at the highest levels and did a large portion of the important behind-the-scenes work for those organizations in which they participated. The report issued a number or recommendations, from leadership training and orientation activities for students to building faculty awareness.

Initiatives on behalf of undergraduate women such as those undertaken by Princeton are important, since leadership opportunities for women in college may correlate to leadership roles after graduation. But the representation of female leaders in college clubs as in corporate boardrooms ultimately benefits men and women alike. So, as you narrow down your choices for college, pay attention to who the leaders are.