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College presidents take aim at the gender gap

M. Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College, was alarmed by stats about gender inequality in a foundation report.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File 2017/Globe Staff

Getting a group like this together isn’t easy. So you know when someone pulls it off, the goal must be ambitious.

Presidents and other top leaders from roughly 40 colleges and universities across Massachusetts huddled high above Boston on Thursday to brainstorm ways to address a tough issue: gender parity among their ranks.

Higher education has often been seen as one of the more inclusive sectors of the economy, a field in which women can run the show.

Maybe not. The genesis for the forum: an Eos Foundation-funded report issued last fall that showed women held only 31 percent of college and university presidencies in the state.


Sure, that’s better than the figures for top leadership positions in venture capital (8 percent) and life sciences (4 percent), two other industries cited in the report. But it’s still nothing to brag about.

Emerson College’s president, Lee Pelton, cohosted the event, held at the UMass Club, alongside Eos president Andrea Silbert. Pelton was alarmed by the stats in the report. Something big needed to be done: He sent out invites to the presidents of every Massachusetts college and university, public and private, for an event that could jump-start the conversation.

Participants pointed to one statistic as a particular wake-up call: At the time the report was put together, only one of the 15 heads of the state’s public universities was a women. (That number is now up to two, thanks to Katherine Newman’s appointment at UMass Boston.) In 2008, there were five.

Pelton says he can’t remember the last time he looked across a room and saw so many top leaders from the state’s colleges and universities. The list of attendees was heavy with smaller schools. Several big ones were represented, as well, such as MIT, WPI, and Tufts. Harvard didn’t send anyone; Pelton says Harvard’s president, Larry Bacow, was out of the country but has told Pelton that he wants to help the cause.


From Pelton’s perspective, gender parity strengthens organizations and the overall economy — a social good is achieved, as well as an economic good.

Many of the ideas that were tossed around focused on the board level: setting term limits for members, for example, or rotating board chairs to give women more opportunities in the boardroom.

(Silbert highlighted the approach that the Massachusetts Business Roundtable takes to alternate between male and female chairs.)

After Thursday’s event, a working group of about a half-dozen presidents will keep the conversation going. Their first agenda item: putting together a list of best practices to be distributed to college boards and presidents throughout the state.

Meanwhile, Eos will continue to keep score. A second higher-ed report is due out in June.

Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill, says the numbers should drive real change.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File 2016/Globe Staff

Pam Eddinger, the president of Bunker Hill Community College, says the numbers should drive meaningful change. Measure something and give it a ranking, she says, and people pay attention.

Eos won’t stop with higher education.

The foundation’s broader “Women’s Power Gap” effort grew out of informal discussions that Silbert had with about a dozen women leaders in 2016. They expressed frustration about the lack of representation among the city’s many chief executive positions. Silbert decided that gender parity could become a signature issue for Eos, and made the pitch to her board. Her group just issued two reports, on gender and racial inequality, among Boston’s major business groups and among 50 public boards and commissions. She hopes to rank the state’s top 50 public companies this fall.


Silbert worries that many people, men and women, have become complacent — less conscious about fighting the good fight for gender parity because they believe the battle has been won.

That’s one big reason why she is determined to prove just how much more work needs to be done.

Jon Chesto can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.