Faust breaks Harvard’s glass ceiling

The appointment of historian Drew Gilpin Faust as Harvard University’s next president is a historic first. As the esteemed university’s first female president, Faust takes over an office that is older than the presidency of the United States and matched by few in its public profile.

Following former Harvard President Larry Summers’ remarks about women’s innate inabilities in the sciences, Harvard’s decision to elect a woman as its new leader takes on added significance as a departure from the past.

But beyond Harvard’s ivied walls, Faust’s new role is historic because of the relative lack of women in society’s most powerful and highest profile positions. When thinking of American establishment institutions, Harvard rests alongside top positions at Fortune 500 companies and in government, where women are scarce or non-existent.

The American Council on Education shows that just 14 percent of the nation’s doctoral granting universities have female presidents. Only two percent of Fortune 500 companies are headed by women. Faust’s new office is a significant step by the university to take the lead in pushing more women into those top spots.

Aside from the specific changes Faust is likely to bring to Harvard; her office is high profile, and one that can serve as a benchmark in the gender equality process. Away from Cambridge, it will be interesting to note how Faust’s reign will impact changes in the greater public.

While universities like Brown, Princeton, MIT and The University of Pennsylvania had female leaders before Harvard, this particular appointment carries more weight because of Harvard’s particular cultural significance as a last bastion of the long-established, typically male elite. Harvard’s first female president signals that women are now more than ever part of the “boys’ club” at the very top of America’s institutions of higher learning.

The political world seems to be moving on a similar track. This January, California congresswoman Nancy Pelosi became the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives. New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is a front-runner for the Democratic nomination for President in 2008 – another first for a female candidate in a major party. The fact that women are, or have a serious chance at leading these august institutions shows just how far female leaders have come in the United States.

But outside these 50 states, of course, other nations and institutions have been more progressive. Women have led many European nations. Later this year, Marie-Segolene Royal may become the first female president of the Fifth French Republic and join the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel as modern female European political leaders. The United States, at least to present, has lagged behind its friends across the pond. But, with each successive female addition to the boardroom or corner office, women are coming closer to matching their male counterparts in high profile leadership roles.

As with any first, there are still some who advise caution. Michele Wetherald, from the American Association of University Women, noted how university boards wonder if the appointment of women will turn off donors. These concerns aside, only time will tell if Harvard will thrive under its new female leader. A successful reign will be the greatest endorsement of new female leaders emerging in the future.

The above editorial was first published in the Tufts Daily at Tufts University. It was made available by U-Wire.