Office of the President

March 8, 2021

As we celebrate women’s leadership, let’s deepen the bench

Ana Mari Cauce

Last month, I wrote about the importance of recognizing Black history as American history — a chance to reflect on how Black people and communities have historically been left out of the shared understanding of the past that shapes our present. International Women’s Day — and indeed, all of Women’s History Month — is another such opportunity to consider whose stories get remembered and whose voices and influence impact us today.

As the first woman to hold the permanent office of president at the University of Washington, I’m often asked to reflect on women’s paths to leadership. My response is that while I’m very proud to be the first woman — and first Latina and first openly gay person — to hold this office, I look forward to the day when it’s no longer remarkable for people like me or others who have been historically marginalized to hold leadership positions. We have a lot progress to make to reach that day, and until we do, we must continue to celebrate the firsts and the barrier-breakers. But we need a deeper bench, so that a “first” doesn’t languish as an “only.” And we should also celebrate the legions of women in every field and walk of life who may not be the “first” but who show up every day, applying hard work and talent that render it more and more commonplace to see women in positions of influence, impact and authority.

I’m proud that here at the UW, women’s leadership is well represented; ten of our 19 UW Deans are women, as are four of our ten-member Board of Regents. But women remain underrepresented in academic leadership broadly. Women are just a fraction of university presidents and chancellors and that representation drops even further when you look only at research universities. In many parts of the world, we are seeing progress — recent data from the Times Higher Education World University Rankings show that the share of the world’s top universities being led by women has inched up to 20%. Here in the U.S., however, the proportion of women presidents and chancellors actually declined, from 21% last year to 17% this year.

Ultimately, if we want to develop long-term trends toward parity, representation matters. It matters both to the girls in school now and early-career female academics who are getting tacit messages about who can lead and whether leadership for women can, for example, be compatible with having a family, as it always has been for male leaders.

As we work toward greater parity and representation, it’s also imperative that we consider who has historically been left behind, even as women have made progress toward greater equity. Women of color — particularly Black, Latinx and Indigenous women — have not made the same gains that white women have. It’s incumbent on all of us to look critically at what — and who — we are celebrating and elevating in support of gender parity.

If we fail to work toward a truly inclusive and representative world, we will repeat the same mistakes of the past, creating in-groups and out-groups that hurt all of us in the end. Fostering diversity, inclusion, equity and representation is not an act of charity — it is a strategy for survival. We need everyone at the table, with their rich array of talents, perspectives and experiences if we want to make real progress that benefits everyone. Today I celebrate knowing that we will keep working toward that vision within and beyond our great public University.