Jo Appleby, a lecturer at University of Leicester, School of Archaeology and Ancient History, speaks at the university Monday Feb. 4, 2013. (Rui Vieira/AP)

It was a simple email message — ‘Wow!’ — but it said so much.

I will never forget the moment in 2001 when Princeton University selected a renowned molecular biologist — a biologist who also happened to be a woman — as its 19th president. My own daughter, Abigail, was in college majoring in chemistry at the time. The announcement of Shirley Tilghman’s presidency prompted not only her email to me, but created in all of us a sense of increased opportunities for women.

Three years later, I would succeed Judith Rodin at the University of Pennsylvania and join Tilghman as president of an Ivy League school. The appointments of Drew Faust at Harvard, Christina Paxson at Brown (who succeeded Ruth Simmons) and Carol Folt as interim president at Dartmouth followed. As a result, women — for the time being — outnumber men as presidents of the eight Ivies.

All in all, according to the American Council of Education, 26 percent of American universities are led by women, a ratio that exceeds that of U.S. corporations (just 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women), military leaders (as of 2009, only 15.5 percent of officers in the four major services were women) and U.S. legislative leaders (only 18.3 percent of House and Senate members, combined, are women).

Yet despite the strides higher education has made in promoting female leaders, we have a considerable amount of work left to do. Women today account for more than half of all college students and, for the first time, hold more advanced degrees than men do. However, these numbers are not equally reflected at the top, and in order to serve the diversity of our students, as well as make better decisions for our institutions, they should be.

But there’s another reason we need more women leading our colleges and universities. To help meet the challenges our country faces — from a derailed global economy to an evolving geopolitical order less eager to take direction from American leadership — we must harness the full range of talent available, from women to people of color who are also underrepresented in leadership roles. That’s especially true in higher education, which will provide the methods of instruction and the means of discovery to help solve these enormous, complex problems.

Too many institutions, universities included, think women’s competitive advantages are tied to so-called traditional “women’s strengths,” such as collaboration or relationship-building. Not true: A 2012 study published online by the Harvard Business Review found that of the 16 competencies top leaders exemplify most, women rated higher than men in 12 of them. Two of the traits where women outperformed men most dramatically — taking initiative and driving for results — have long been labeled as “men’s strengths.” The point, of course, is not that one sex or the other produces innately more capable leaders. It is the value of drawing from the biggest possible pool of talent that matters.

Raw talent alone, however, is not enough, and at universities it’s not just what women know, or even whom women know, but who knows them that is most directly tied to career advancement. Almost anyone in a position of leadership can point to a highly placed individual who took an interest in fostering, and took pains to help develop, the trajectory of her career. These are not mere mentors but “sponsors,” or senior people who advocate on others’ behalf. Research shows that such powerful individuals are far more effective than mentors who simply offer feedback. Therefore, we as higher-education leaders must do more to retain and recruit role models and provide such sponsors for emerging women in our field.

But how do we keep women in the pipeline so that they grow into leadership roles? We must start early by identifying talented women through institutional programs, as well as national ones such as the ACE Fellows, that foster success. We must create family-friendly policies that support women (and men) as they navigate the crucial, mid-career years of their 30s, when the tenure process hits its peak. Rather than asking them — even unconsciously — to choose between family and professional success, we need more policies that allow both career flexibility and growth.

Finally, institutions must not only devote resources to addressing the underrepresentation of women, they must actively measure and report their results. At Penn, we address the status of women on campus publicly through our Gender Equity Report. We recently marked continued progress in increasing the proportion of women faculty across all ranks. The proportion of academic leaders (deans, associate deans and department chairs) who are women, for instance, grew from 19 percent to 25 percent over the last four years. Meanwhile, the percentage of full professors who are women at Penn grew from 17.5 percent in 2007 to 21.5 percent in 2011. This is by no means a stopping point. We continue to press for more progress.

Higher education may boast a higher portion of women leaders than most other industries, but we can’t sit on our laurels. It will only be with more sponsors, a sharper focus on developing women in the career pipeline, and more public accountability of our results that we can bring the numbers in line with the student populations we lead. If leadership matters — and in today’s world it matters more than ever — then there must be a consistent message from the top that recruiting and promoting talented women isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.

Amy Gutmann is the president of the University of Pennsylvania.

Related articles:

Our brighest female graduates are still at a disadvantage

Can we stop talking about the glass ceiling?

Keep up with On Leadership on Facebook and Twitter.