DENVER — There was definitely a community vibe at the AACC Annual session titled “Fierce Women CEOs: Be One, Know One, Support One.”
Fifteen minutes before the presentation was scheduled to start, it was already standing-room only, with a few people even sitting on the floor.
The presenters were women community college presidents from diverse backgrounds — immigrants, biracial, queer, military veterans, living in multi-generational homes. The session attendees, who were nearly all women, were eager to hear their stories — from the struggles to the successes — and to get some guidance to navigate their own careers in higher education.
Disruptors in action
The panel of presidents, all from California colleges, each outlined how they were helping to redefine who a CEO is. Angelica Garcia, president of Berkeley City College, brought her wife and children to the session, partly to make a point that presidents are people, too, and they have to balance family life and other obligations. And she wanted her daughters to see her lead this conversation about women leaders.
“Sometimes by our very nature we are dismantling the social construct of what is a CEO,” Garcia said of women were who already presidents. “The more we step into those roles, the more we start to chip away at what a CEO should look like.”
But even when women lead colleges — and national surveys show there are more women community college CEOs than men — they face unique challenges. For example, in California, the average tenure of a community college president is five years — 5.3 years for men, and 3.7 years for women, Garcia said.
“There’s something happening with female-identified CEOs not sitting in the seats long enough,” she said, explaining that leaders who serve longer are more effective in bringing change.
Each of the presidents noted that they have faced adversity and hurdles in their careers because of people’s perceptions of them. Claudia Habib, president of Porterville College — where 80% of the 4,000 students are Latino — comes from an Afro-Colombian and Indigenous background. She arrived in the U.S. in her 20s and learned to speak English at a community college. She still has an accent.
That kind of background doesn’t gel well with traditional academia, which is still largely based on a hierarchy and forces individuals to conform if they want to advance, Habib said. She recalled when early in her community college career she taught architecture, drafting and science programs — subjects taught mostly by men at the time. Because of her background, they perceived that her teaching was less rigorous and that she was a “weaker teacher.” They tried to bully her into taking more teaching hours, but she resisted, balking at suggestions to “toughen up” or to “pay her dues.”
There were other instances over Habib’s career that were stressful. When her Muslim family spoke out against the war in Iraq, her sons were called terrorists, and they were asked how it felt knowing they would go to hell. Habib said she related that story because women leaders often have to “prove” themselves more than men. That can come at a price, like affecting one’s family, she said.
Nevertheless, Habib said she tries to lead at her college, where she has served since 2019, with kindness and humility, noting that doing so is a sign of strength, not weakness.
Tina Maria King, president of San Diego College of Continuing Education, also faced many challenges in her life and career. Neither of her parents finished high school, and her father spent years in prison. Later in life, she would shy away from talking about her background because she thought it “made her sound less presidential.” But King has embraced that background and dubbed herself the “Afro-Latina warrior.”
As a first-time president who has been at the helm for less than a year, King thanked a pair of presidents who early on reached out to her to guide her. They connected her with local, state and national networks of support, King said. She still relies on the guidance of two coaches, she added.
King also encouraged newer presidents to participate in the Presidents Academy Summer Institute, which is held by the American Association of Community Colleges. (This summer, it will be in Toronto.) Aside from helping to develop and strengthen networks between CEOs, it typically includes a program for presidents’ spouses, which she said was valuable to her family. Her husband participated and learned from spouses of veteran presidents about their experiences and the role they play in supporting the CEO at home, in the job and in the community, she said.
Garcia of Berkeley City College concluded the session by saying it’s important to not only notice and support women leaders, but to hire them. She called it “finding accomplices in action.” An experienced president serving as a coach or mentor is invaluable in helping younger leaders “decode” the terrain of a presidency, she said.