Women in leadership positions at the UI make their mark on campus

The University of Iowa is ranked as a top academic institution for bridging the gap for women in leadership.


Illustration by Rose Foley

Day Martinez-Soto, DEI Director

The University of Iowa has gained national recognition for its support of women in leadership positions across its campus.

A study by Andrea Silbert, Magdalena Punty, and Elizabeth Brodbine Ghoniem — authors of the Women’s Power Gap study series for the Eos Foundation — examined 130 research institutions to assess gender gaps in leadership, ranking the UI at No. 4.

The study compared data from each institution to determine which have made efforts to shrink the gap between men and women in positions of power, including top leadership (president, provost, and board chair), academic deans, president’s cabinet (net of academic deans), and governing boards.

The UI ranked highly because of numerous women in significant positions of leadership, including current President Barbara Wilson and two previous presidents, Sally Kay Mason and Mary Sue Coleman. At the UI, 58 percent of academic deans are women, 36 percent of president’s cabinet members are women, and 24 percent of fully tenured professors are women, according to the study.

Data visualization by Kelsey Harrell/The Daily Iowan

UI Assistant Dean and Director of Student Accountability Angela Ibrahim-Olin is one of many women serving in leaderships positions at the university.

In her role, Ibrahim-Olin assists students who need to resolve a pending Code of  Student Life complaint. She answers questions about misconduct records, participates in the Critical Mentoring and Student Support Program, and helps raise student misconduct complaints in which the student is a witness or victim.

Before taking on the position, Ibrahim-Olin worked as a resident assistant. She became a hall coordinator for more than seven years after graduate school, serving at various institutions. She knew she would be qualified for a job in student conduct or accountability once it was available, because she already had the knowledge and tools to do well.

She added that she is surrounded by many other leading women in her sector at the university.

“In my day-to-day work, the vast majority of the people I am interacting with are women,” Ibrahim-Olin said. “Our associate Vice President of the Dean of Students is a woman, our Vice President for Student Life is a woman.”

Tabitha Wiggins, director of the UI Center for Inclusive Academic Excellence, uses her leadership position to assist marginalized students and ensure that their voices are heard.

As the director, much of Wiggins’ work centers on students of color, assuring that their needs are being met so they can prosper at and graduate from the university.

Wiggins said mentorship and connections have been key to her success. Women such as UI Vice President for Student Life Sarah Hansen and Associate Vice President and Dean of Students Angie Reams have contributed to her growth and development as a professional and as a person, Wiggins said.

“I think mentorship is really a key way to break down those barriers for women,” she said. “I’ve connected myself with mentors that have been able to get those doors open for me or put me in a table that I could not put myself at.”

Wiggins said she hopes more people will receive these important opportunities, and wants to encourage students and faculty to take advantage of opportunities they may be offered by those around them.

“I’ve had very key mentors that have opened doors for me, when I know for a fact that I have peers that don’t have the same opportunities who deserve just as much of the opportunities that I’ve had,” Wiggins said.

Amanda Thein, UI associate provost for graduate and professional education and dean of the Graduate College, works with other staff and faculty across campus and in the Graduate College to provide support to graduate and professional students’ successes, to expand and strengthen quality programs, and to guarantee that graduate and professional students are prepared for their careers.

“I deeply enjoyed working closely with graduate students and mentoring them into careers in academia and beyond,” Thein wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan. “I became program coordinator for the Language, Literacy, and Culture doctoral program and found I could contribute a lot to graduate student success by working with my colleagues to make sure all of our graduate students had excellent advising, a wide array of experiences as graduate student assistants, and coursework that met their needs and goals.”

While the UI ranked highly in the study, Ibrahim-Olin and Wiggins agreed there is still work to be done to address the gender gap in leadership positions across campus.

Of the examined institutions, the study’s survey found that men held more than 50 percent of system president, provost, academic dean, president’s cabinet, and tenured full professor roles.

While Ibrahim-Olin said most of the leadership roles in her sector are held by women, the majority of leadership roles and cabinet positions at the university are filled by men.

“This reminds me of a Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote: ‘When will there be enough women in the Supreme Court? When there’s nine,’” Ibrahim-Olin said. “Meaning, when every seat is a woman.”

Out of 591 fully tenured UI professors surveyed in the study, only 24 percent are women. Nineteen percent are white women, 2 percent are Asian women, 2 percent are Hispanic women, and 1 percent are unknown. Of the 12 academic deans at the university, four are white men, six are white women, one is a Black woman, and one is a multiracial man, according to the study.

Data visualization by Kelsey Harrell/The Daily Iowan

Wiggins, who is Black, said she wants to highlight the need for improvement on other aspects of diversity, such as racial and ethnic diversity in the university.

“There isn’t a lot of representation for me, of people who look like me, [who] value the same things I value at a higher level in the institution,” Wiggins said. “There aren’t a lot of people like that, so there isn’t, like, a road map of success for me. I’m kind of blazing that trail myself, and that’s been kind of a barrier.”

Harriet Nembhard, dean of the UI College of Engineering, acknowledged the need for the reconciliation of old and outdated policies as well as one to better serve women in leadership, especially when it comes to balancing their personal life outside of work.

“For me personally, one of the biggest hurdles was starting a family while in a tenure-track faculty position,” Nembhard wrote in an email to the DI. “Our three daughters are now 25, 21, and 19 — I had them all before getting tenure. I’m pleased that the academy has made some significant progress in this area but there’s still so much more to do to make this workplace work for women.”

Wiggins said many women leaders at the UI have stepped down from their position as a result of the demands and expectations surrounding their work life — an issue exacerbated by the pandemic.

She said institutions can be more thoughtful about how to empower women to keep their roles while balancing them with their home life, through policies that ensure they have the necessary support to be productive employees and active family members.

Though she agreed there is still work to be done, Thein wrote that the UI’s ranking among 136 other universities remains something of which to be proud.

“The University of Iowa is in a great position to become a national model for women’s leadership,” Thein wrote. “When there are more women in these impactful roles, there are more opportunities for other women to find role models and mentors.”