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Gender pay gap between university presidents shrinks as the institution's status rises: Study

The research is based on 17 years of data from over 1,100 university presidents working for more than 700 universities in the US

While the gender pay gap continues to exist across industries, the glass ceiling is breaking in higher educational institutes.

The gender pay gap is shrinking for some female university presidents in the US, and it even disappears at more prestigious universities, according to new research.

The findings show that the gender pay gap does exist within US universities, but it narrows as a university's status increases.

The researchers say that while breaking through the glass ceiling will help reduce the gender pay gap, accounting for where the glass ceiling is broken is also critical in understanding the problem, and resolving it.

"Our results show that higher-status universities (middle-ranked universities and higher) compensate men and women more equitably. More specifically, our results show that as the status of a university rises, the pay gap declines—with the pay gap even disappearing at higher-status universities," the researchers said in their findings published in the INFORMS (Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences) journal Organization Sciences.

The research, conducted by researchers from the University of Central Florida, the University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Pretoria, and Northeastern University, is based on 17 years of data from over 1,100 university presidents working for more than 700 universities in the US.

The status of universities in the study is determined by data collected from US News & World Report's Best College Rankings.

The study reveals that in higher education, there is typically a nine percent compensation difference between male and female presidents, with women receiving less pay than men on average.

However, at higher-status universities, female presidents are receiving similar levels of total compensation as male presidents, and some are even earning more than male presidents at prestigious universities.

The researchers explain that there is a more significant benefit for women presidents at higher-status universities as the visibility of such institutions is far higher than that of lower-status organizations. "Therefore, the additional requirements needed to uphold higher levels of status not only should be reflected in the compensation of the presidents but should also help narrow the wage gap for women," they reason.

The researchers say that more prestigious organizations are concerned with preserving their status (in contrast to lower-status organizations attempting to gain status), and they are likely to be more aware of potential backlash associated with behaviors that could damage their status.

"Consider the example that high-status universities such as Columbia, Yale, and Brown have started initiatives, spending over $100 million to address diversity and inclusion. If a female president (who is one of the most visible actors within the university) does not receive at least an equitable amount of compensation to similar men at high-status universities, the universities run the risk of being viewed as hypocritical and discriminatory. The potential backlash arising from this behavior could be quite costly," the researchers explain in the paper.

The researchers say that, as most consider higher education to be at the forefront in promoting environments of equal opportunity and a place that should encourage diverse perspectives, their findings implicate universities in leading the way toward social change.

The researchers, however, caution that more efforts are needed to address the problem.

"Although we are glad to see that some women are receiving similar pay to men, the fact that women presidents represented around 20% of university presidents across the time span of our data (despite student bodies that average approximately equal gender representation), and given that we find that many women presidents still suffer a pay gap, suggests that there is more work to do within higher education to build an environment where women have equal representation and compensation," says the research team.

The researchers believe that educational institutions and policymakers need to facilitate better representation of women in leadership roles.