Advancing Gender Equity in and Through Education

by Nancy Coleman,

Associate Provost & Director of Strategic Initiatives,

Wellesley College


Although progress has been made in the advancement of women’s equality in education, a wide gap still exists in leadership and gender disparity. There is no absence of women in the education field, however, research shows that the higher up the academic ladder, the wider the gender gap. Thankfully, many educational institutions are making strides to address this problem, and in the past decade we have seen more women assume leadership roles. However, females are still in the minority at the top. According to a study by the American Council on Education, only 30 percent of college leaders are female. Women are better represented in the C-suite than in the presidency, but still make up far less than half of senior academic positions. This inequality influences how students interpret gender roles and fosters inequality.

With International Women’s Day approaching on March 8, it’s time to pause, assess and ask yourself, what about gender equality? This year’s theme is an empowering one: An equal world is an enabled world. As someone who champions gender equality and women’s empowerment for a living, it's a subject that I am frequently asked about. Yet even at a recent international education conference, I had both male and female colleagues from a variety of countries, say to me, “that’s not a problem for us.”

Perhaps in your organization or institution, or in your world, that may be true, but in many places across the globe, it is not. We need to continue our work towards equality, and what better way than through education?

Glenda Slingsby, Partnerships Director for International Women’s Day (IWD, 2019) sums it nicely: “Gender balance is not a women's issue, it's an economic issue - so advocacy, inclusive mindsets and tangible action are needed from all. Stereotypes are being challenged and more diverse representation of women is evident. Clearly, however, there is still a continuing need worldwide for more progressive mindsets and inclusive behaviours to be forged.”

A distinctive perspective.

Women offer a distinctive perspective and approach to leadership that can produce the same successful outcomes as men or perhaps better. More participative styles of leadership often attributed to women can foster more creativity and innovation. There is considerable evidence that female leaders have a more collaborative, androgynous, and transformational leadership style than their male counterparts. Women as leaders, compared with men, produce outcomes that can be described as more compassionate, benevolent, and ethical, thus promoting the public good (Eagly, 2013).

There is work to be done.

Besides more well-known issues such as equal pay, work-life balance, health and safety; research by McKinsey shows that two thirds of women face microaggressions at work, including having their judgement or competence questioned. These slights, taken individually, can seem small but add up over time. Bias also keeps women from the top spots. Unconscious or implicit bias can cloud judgement in unexpected ways.

Education is further along.

According to the International Women’s Day annual survey (IWD 2019), education is the area where people think equality will be achieved first - close to half of the 18,000 respondents are confident that discrimination against women in education will have ended 20 years from now. Two-thirds believe that women won’t achieve equality in their country unless men take actions to support women’s rights. Inequality can subconsciously condition gender roles into students’ heads even at the youngest of ages, which is why it is critical that we model equality for our students of any age to see.

Time to move the needle.

It has been widely asserted that women lead differently than men. In broad terms, women lead by concentrating more on relationships, achieving results through collaborative models and sharing information, while men focus on promoting individual contributions and achieving final outcomes. If that is the case, then a different kind of support for women is appropriate and needed.

Many precollege programs treat all of their students the same, espousing that in a few short weeks on campus, all participants can walk away with greater self awareness, more confident and better prepared for college. In reality, it is different for women. Girls have a natural impulse to become leaders; however, starting as early as middle school, this impulse is conditioned out by societal pressures. Not only do we need to cultivate leadership skills in young women earlier, but we also need to equip women of all ages with appropriate gender-specific tools to succeed. Throughout our long history educating women at Wellesley, we have found that women-only classrooms lead to higher levels of engagement, empowerment, and in turn, results. By engaging in active and collaborative learning opportunities in a safe and respectful space, women are able to deepen their learning. By acknowledging shared challenges and opportunities, women build resilience, increase risk tolerance and develop alliances and networks that provide a greater support system far beyond the classroom.

The data is clear. It’s time to take another look at gender-based programs. Yes, our goal is to be more inclusive, but if by offering specialty programs that shine a light on women’s empowerment and advance women in the workplace starts to move the needle, shouldn’t we be saying yes?

Dr. Nancy Coleman is Associate Provost and Director of Strategic Initiatives at Wellesley, a leading higher education institution for women in the United States. She invites conversation on this topic and can be reached at


Eagly, A. H. (2013). Women as leaders: Leadership style versus leaders’ values and attitudes. In Gender and work: Challenging conventional wisdom. Harvard Business School Press.

Gardner, L. (2019) What Happens When Women Run Colleges? Chronicle of Hoigher Educaton.

International Women’s Day website: