Leadership

These are the world's top universities led by women

Women are leading the representation of 4 out of 5 world's top universities.

Women are leading the representation of 4 out of 5 world's top universities. Image: REUTERS/Hannah McKay.

Phil Baty
Chief Global Affairs Officer, Times Higher Education
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Society and Equity

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  • Women lead almost a quarter of the world’s top 200 universities, according to the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
  • The US and Germany are leading the way in terms of female representation.
  • Despite progress, women are disproportionately affected by hostile public discourse and systemic barriers to greater leadership equality.

In Louise Richardson’s last major speech before stepping down as the leader of the world’s top university, Oxford, she was very clear: “There is no question at all in my mind that future university leaders will need to be increasingly representative of the diverse constituencies they lead, and that they will bring new and vibrant leadership styles,” she told the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit in New York in October 2022.

New data released this week by Times Higher Education (THE) for International Women’s Day demonstrates her point emphatically.

Today, women lead almost a quarter (48) of the world's top 200 universities, as found in THE's World University Rankings – that's 12% more than last year (43). While there is still a long way to go until we reach parity, today's figure is 41% higher than five years ago, when only 34 of the world's best universities were led by women.

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The US and Germany have led the improvement in female representation at the helm of the world’s leading institutions, but there have also been key breakthroughs in East Asia and the Middle East.

THE’s data shows that 16 of the US’s 58 world top 200 ranked universities have women presidents, compared to 13 last year, led by Sally A Kornbluth, the new president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In Germany, five of the leading universities are now led by women, up from just two last year, as three women broke centuries of male leadership in 2022.

Top 10 universities led by women 2023. Women are now leading many of the world's top universities.
Top 10 universities led by women 2023. Women are now leading many of the world's top universities. Image: Source: Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

In East Asia, Nancy Ip took charge as the first-ever female president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in 2022, and in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulziz University saw Hana Abdullah Al-Nuaim take over as interim president.

What are the challenges facing women leaders?

Despite progress in recent years, there are still significant gaps to equality in higher education leadership. Of the 27 countries that featured universities in the world's top 200, 12 countries do not have any female leaders.

In Richardson's speech at the World Academic Summit, Oxford's departing head highlighted the problem with the pipeline of female talent in higher education globally. "This is a problem that needs to be tackled internationally," she said. "In the US, in 2018, women represented 53% of assistant Professors, and 46% of associate Professors, but accounted for only 34% of full Professors. Women of colour remain worryingly underrepresented in academia, though there are signs of positive movement on this issue."

One challenge, among many, cited by Richardson, was the rise of social media abuse, which disproportionately affects high-profile women. “There are real challenges in the brave new world of university leadership,” she said. “One of them is the increasing pressure of social media threats (to harass, assault, even rape), death-wishes, jibes, crude slurs on personal appearance, and other forms of abuse that are disproportionately levelled at women and which can actively dissuade any person – particularly if they come from an underrepresented group – from voicing strong opinions or being the public face of areas of scholarship, and other initiatives that provoke opposition. Civil discourse has taken a blow in an era of clickbait.

“We will not have sufficient women captaining the bridge in universities or any other institutions in public life, until we have acted to remove the threatening trolls beneath them,” explained Richardson.

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Indeed, before Nicola Sturgeon stepped down as first minister of Scotland last month, citing the “brutality” of public life, she had spoken of the “vicious and horrible” abuse she faced on social media, which she has described as a “toxic sewer”. Following Jacinda Ardern’s decision to step down as prime minister of New Zealand in January 2023, many pointed out the extreme and often violent abuse she had faced on social media.

We will not have sufficient women captaining the bridge in universities or any other institutions in public life, until we have acted to remove the threatening trolls beneath them.

Louise Richardson, First woman to lead University of Oxford as vice-chancellor (2016–2022)

For Richardson, the mainstream media is complicit in the toxicity of social media. “Trolling does not happen in isolation: it is often part of a pattern of pile-ons and jeers that is fed by lazy reportage and provocative political statements about universities,” she told the World Academic Summit. “Responsible journalism … can enable good leadership, both by giving leaders more time to fight real fires, and by encouraging diverse staff to feel that they can lead, without being the target of inflammatory headlines.”

Universities are moving in the right direction

Despite this hostile public climate and the many systemic barriers to greater leadership equality, the progress – and the positive momentum for further change – is undeniable. Richardson, when she stepped down in December last year from Oxford University, handed over to another woman: Irene Tracey. And soon, Oxford’s elite UK counterpart, Cambridge, will also be led by a woman: current Princeton Provost, Deborah Prentice, takes up her new role in July.

Also this year, Claudine Gay will become the first Black woman to lead Harvard University; Egyptian-born Minouche Shafik will take over at Columbia University; and Columbia’s downtown city neighbour New York University will be led by a woman, Linda G Mills, for the first time ever, from July this year.

Speaking to THE about Gay’s landmark Harvard appointment, Gloria Blackwell, chief executive of the American Association of University Women, said: “Having an institution like Harvard really take a stand and put a Black woman at the helm – this venerable, revered institution – we hope will send a signal to so many of the other institutions who are still enmeshed in recruiting and procedures and governing boards that are not inclusive.”

Indeed, by the summer of 2023, four out of the current top five universities in the world are set to have a woman in the top job – Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge and MIT. I hope that is going to send a very powerful signal to institutions right across the world.

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