Burwell presidency is an example of women’s leadership

First female president of AU proves how slowly change has come

Burwell presidency is an example of women’s leadership

As a senior in high school, the announcement that Sylvia Burwell would be the president of American University during my time at AU was incredibly exciting. A former Cabinet member during the Obama administration's second term, Burwell seemed to be the strong woman leader I aspire to be.

So soon after the election of Donald Trump, it was heartening to see AU choose a woman for its highest administrative position. Representation matters, and the experience women have on college campuses is unique. Knowing that there is someone at the very top who can understand #MeToo or the struggle to be recognized professionally means something. Burwell represents women succeeding, sitting at the table and being heard. There are few people who can say that about their university president, and I was, and still am, proud to say that about mine.

Then, I realized that AU has been an institution for 125 years. President Burwell is the first woman to hold the title of AU president ever. Nationally, only 30 percent of universities had a female president in 2016, according to the American College President Study 2017. However, the majority of college students in 2015 were female, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. They cannot look to their leadership as representative of themselves. AU deserves congratulations for hiring Burwell, but this congratulations comes with a grain of salt, as it is for finally hiring a woman after 124 years.

Even with women at top positions at our universities, gender disparities are pervasive in higher education and AU. In 2015, AU’s full-time female professors -- at the professor, associate professor, assistant professor and instructor rank --  made less than their male counterparts on average, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s faculty salary data tool. This tool uses data provided by the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Of the ten highest-paid private college presidents in 2015, only two are women, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s executive compensation package. Their report orders presidents by total pay -- including bonuses -- and not just base pay.

Women in power, inside and outside academia, are continually the recipients of scorn and criticism, in many circumstances unearned. For evidence, one only has to look to the questions women are asked about their personal lives.

  • Are you planning on having children?
  • Will menstruation affect your work?
  • Are you in a relationship?

These are all questions women have heard in their climb to top positions that men had never, and won’t ever, encounter. Even today, men who are strangers to women will ask them if they have kids or not, and then offer an unsolicited opinion.

The culture surrounding working women is especially toxic. The idea that a woman with ambition shouldn’t have children is still pervasive. Being a woman still means having to choose only one thing; we cannot have both.

Academia has also seen its own version of the Me Too movement with the hashtag, #MeTooPhD. The hashtag has brought up issues of harassment, lack of punishment for harassers and general discrimination against women in higher education.

Other issues women face in the academy include lack of women in senior academic positions, manipulation of female graduate students by male thesis advisers  and the need for men in general to constantly prove themselves and their ideas are pervasive. Ideas are what accelerate those in academia; women in academia can find themselves stuck in a cycle of defense, just for job security. At our own University, six female professors denied tenure have accused Scott Bass, the outgoing provost, of discrimination, The Eagle reported.

What else do women need to do to gain equal footing? The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was ratified 98 years ago this August. Title IX is only 46-years-old. American University hired a woman for its top administrative position in 2017, 124 years after the university opened its doors. How many more hoops can there be to jump through? Women are questioned every step of the way, making the roadblocks to positions like Burwell’s all the more insurmountable.

Samantha McAllister is a freshman in the School of International Service and a columnist for The Eagle.

This story was originally published in the April print edition of The Eagle.


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