Women leaders advise their peers

Elizabeth Pluhta (center) of South Seattle College will be among the speakers on a panel on women's leadership at the upcoming AACC Annual Convention in Dallas. (Photo: South Seattle College)

It was during a session on women aspiring to become college presidents at last year’s American Association of Community Colleges’ Annual Convention that Elizabeth Pluhta and two colleagues were inspired to pitch a similar session for this year’s convention, but this one would focus on women in mid-career positions aiming for the next level, such as dean or vice president.

Last year’s session drew a standing-room only crowd that prompted Plutha, vice president of administrative services at South Seattle College, and two Washington community college colleagues to mull whether it would be useful to develop a session on how women can develop a career track that would lead them to those CEO positions. They pitched the idea to AACC, and the team will make their presentation later this month. Below is a sample of the topics they will discuss, which include collaborating, mentoring and self-advocating, among others.

Collaboration skills

Women leaders bring a certain strength to their roles, due to their natural inclination to collaborate, according to Pluhta. An institution with shared governance – where there is an emphasis on collaboration and relationship building – tends to be a good fit for woman leaders, she said.

“You get much better decisions and solutions when you have more talented people working on the problem together,” she said.

Women leaders also face unique challenges. “As a woman, sometimes it’s difficult to navigate conflict and structures where people don’t expect to see a woman in a leadership role,” Pluhta said. “We are often socialized to be cheerful and accommodating. Women need to be mindful when people’s default is to assign you to certain roles.”

Women are often asked to take notes at a meeting, for example, which limits their ability to contribute to the discussion. So, when asked to take notes, Pluhta suggests being ready with a strategy to deflect.

Mentors are critical

Before Kristen Jones was appointed vice president of instruction at North Seattle College in Washington, she spent 19 years at Linn-Benton Community College in Oregon, where she worked her up from being a classified employee to an instructional leader, then served as vice president of instruction and student services at Flathead Valley Community College in Montana.

Along the way she had mentors who encouraged her to earn a master’s degree and doctorate and to apply for more advanced positions even though she didn’t feel fully qualified.

“Women in most cases won’t apply for a job unless they meet all the qualifications. A man would apply anyway,” Jones said.

“Be as strong advocate for yourself,” she advises other women. “Find mentors and supporters and let your interests in new responsibilities and new positions be known.”

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Lisa Skari, vice president of institutional advancement at Highline College in Washington, had a nonlinear path to higher education leadership. After five years as a manager and buyer in the retail industry, she wanted to try something different, so she responded to a newspaper ad for a position teaching retail at Highline. After several promotions, she was appointed to her current position before she turned 40.

“I was fortunate to have a really great mentor who gave me really good advice,” Skari said. She also credits her success to having a strong administrative background and lots of support at her institution.

While there are many women in management positions at community colleges, the top positions continue to be held primarily by men, she said. Among the 34 community colleges in Washington, there are only about a dozen women presidents. “In this day and age we should be at 50-50.”

Skari advises women who want to break through to the president’s suite to build allies and networks across the college and in the community and “get a more broad exposure to the nuances of the entire institution.”

“Women leaders tend to be more collaborative and communal and less strong around numbers,” Skari added. “Women need to be comfortable around budgets, enrollment trends and data. That’s critical.”

A bright future

Since they submitted their proposal for the session, all three presenters have been promoted or are being considered for higher-level positions. Skari will start a new job in July as president of Mt. Hood College in Oregon. Pluhta is a finalist for the presidency at Pierce College in Washington, and Jones is a finalist for a position as vice president at another college.

At last year’s AACC convention, Pluhta found it very encouraging to see so many women aspiring to become community college leaders – and to see women supporting other women and male leaders supporting women.

Pluhta benefited from having both women and men mentors early in her career. “There are savvy and influential, powerful men who recognize the value we bring and are intentional about supporting us,” she said.

“I’m optimistic and encouraged about the opportunities for women to advance and succeed in community colleges,” Pluhta said. “The future is promising.”

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.