As I finish my eighth year as president of Montgomery College (MC) in Maryland, I am often asked how women succeed at community colleges.
While each woman’s journey is unique, I offer three suggestions from my personal and professional experiences: learn the landscape, advocate for one’s self and network with other women.
Some of the best advice I have ever gotten about my career was to be proactive and informed. Information is power. Networking with other women — especially at institutions other than your own — can provide valuable perspectives. It can expand one’s thinking about salaries, office politics and gender-based barriers to advancement.
The more one learns about other institutions, the more one’s mind is opened to different practices.
Growing your network
If your institution’s culture has kept women from advancing, there may be a discernible reason: an entrenched old boy’s network, a leader who discourages diversity or something more benign like inadequate professional development funds. Conferences that bring committed women together, such as the annual one put on by the American Association of Women in Community Colleges — of which I am president — grow women’s networks. By meeting women in positions to which one aspires, women learn about the actual responsibilities of such work and about other women’s trajectories.
Finding out what salaries and benefits can be commanded for different leadership positions also is vital for professional equity. Women have traditionally been discouraged from negotiating in the hiring process, a reality that seriously disadvantages them.
While many work environments make it difficult to access data on gender and salaries within an institution, the Chronicle of Higher Education collects such data and publishes it online, based on reporting to the U.S. Department of Education. By talking about these numbers openly, women at higher education institutions can make conversations about inequity more frequent and more public.
At a recent leadership conference, I heard a former female president discuss how she had included a clause in her contract that paid for the cost of her husband’s long-term care. He was her senior by at least 10 years, and she knew she couldn’t care for him and accept a presidency. Another female president required that her spouse’s travel to conferences be covered so that they could spend down time together when she presented at distant sites — a frequent requirement of her position.
Such details can improve quality of life, a true concern for many female leaders. Because so many contract details are often not revealed outside of friendships or close colleagues, networking with other thoughtful, experienced women is invaluable.
Understanding the landscape
Knowing the gender statistics at one’s institution also confers an advantage. Of my eight senior advisors, most of them vice presidents, five are women. The provosts of two of our three campuses are women. Women outnumber men in full-time and part-time faculty positions at MC at a rate of about 3:2. Women are the clear majority among department chairs (28 women vs. 11 men) but not amongst deans (five women to eight men).
But I wondered if this equity was reflected in faculty salaries — arguably, a more meaningful measure of equity at an institution. When I searched the Chronicle of Higher Education for my institution’s data on gender and salaries, I found that the average salary of a male faculty member at every level — whether assistant professor, associate or full professor — was greater than the average female faculty member.
I asked my chief equity and inclusion officer to explore the causes behind this trend and my college is looking for ways to remedy such inequities. We have already increased funding for faculty educational assistance programs and travel, and are making improvements to career laddering and mentoring for staff.
I should add, though, that these changes didn’t start with me. They evolved from several surveys conducted over two years, among faculty and staff at my college on the quality of their workplace experiences. Such introspection takes time and energy, so commitment to gender equity at the top is an important ingredient in any transformative strategy.