Supporting the Professional Development of Women Leaders

Academic Senate President, College of the Canyons
ASCCC Faculty Leadership Development Committee, Sierra College
ASCCC Faculty Leadership Development Committee Chair

Most people would agree that communication brings people together and, with empathy and an open mind, can provide the foundation for understanding and growth. The thought of moving into action and beyond words is exciting: to change a dominant culture to one more inclusive of all diverse voices, one that validates and empowers those often silenced and marginalized. Women, for example, have been trailblazing and fighting for equality and equity for centuries.

The authors of this article are women in higher education who at times struggle to find safety and acceptance in some spaces within their workplaces and fields. The marginalization of women in higher education is documented (Muhs, et al, 2012 and Diangelo, 2018). The lack of sensitivity to women’s issues in the workplace and especially in academia needs to be communicated and addressed. Microaggressions are often felt, and the marginalization is palpable at conference tables and in office hallways. The disappointments of someone literally cutting your words out of your written work, dismissing your opinions in a meeting, or calling you “darling” or “girly” or “touchy feely” are all microaggressions and actions that are still painful no matter how much one tries to be strong, forgive, and continue the work. Women are warriors, but perhaps they need more than just their own willingness to fight; maybe they need everyone to hear them, to see them, and to fight with them.


In a collection of scholarly articles titled Presumed Incompetent, women in higher education share powerful stories and publish studies conducted on topics including politics, hierarchies, campus climate, violence, social justice, intersectionality, tokenism, and the need for allies and healing (Muhs, et al., 2012). These topics are of interest to current and past ASCCC leadership as well. As a first step to investigating more about women’s issues, the ASCCC leadership commenced an effort to find ways to support women.

In Spring 2018, the delegates to the ASCCC Plenary Session adopted the 2018-2023 Strategic Plan for the ASCCC. This plan includes six overarching goals. The second goal, “Engage and Empower Diverse Groups of Faculty at All Levels of State and Local Leadership,” has two objectives: increase leadership development opportunities to prepare diverse faculty to participate in and lead local and statewide conversations, and increase the diversity of faculty representation on committees of the ASCCC, including the Executive Committee, and other system consultation bodies to better reflect the diversity of California. The ASCCC’s Faculty Leadership Development Committee (FLDC) has been working on strategies to address the first objective. One of these strategies is to create professional development focused on specific populations of faculty. Given the current socio-cultural climate for women, the FLDC wanted to determine whether specific professional development for women would be beneficial. To answer this question, focus groups were held at the June 2019 Faculty Leadership Institute and the fall 2019 Womyn’s Survey was released to colleges.


At the 2019 Faculty Leadership Institute, two sessions were conducted and open to all institute participants to gather information from faculty. The focus groups revealed various needs and topics of interest to women leaders. Overall, the participants emphasized the desire for mentoring and networking, the value of allies and collaboration, training on communication styles and tools to support leadership, and the importance of self-care and time to support the work, including the life balance of parenting and family responsibilities. Both sessions were productive and powerful, with input from approximately ten to twelve women in each session and from two men at one session. The participants engaged in an activity with small group discussion and also anecdotally gave positive feedback about the activities and overall direction.

The participants expressed an interest in continuing professional development work and seeing more support for women. They also expressed interest in the creation of a caucus focused on women’s issues. As an answer to that call, in fall 2019, women leaders started the ASCCC Womyn’s Caucus. Caucus meetings are held at every ASCCC plenary session and offer space to share voices, concerns, and any needs for leadership development. Anyone who wants to be an ally for women is encouraged to attend. [1]


A cursory glance at the results from the Womyn’s Survey sent out on the ASCCC senate presidents’ listserv in fall of 2019 indicates that a high number of respondents were white women (61%). The results showed that the majority agreed that faculty leadership opportunities exist for women (60% agree, 14% disagree). Further, 80% of these respondents said they feel that they are perceived as competent. The takeaway from these responses is that a fair amount of white women have opportunities and say that because of those opportunities, they feel that they “belong” (66%).

With closer consideration, the fall 2019 Womyn’s Survey provided additional insights about the professional development needs that supported the information gathered from the focus groups and thus will help shape the future direction of the work of the FLDC. Three areas are worth noting: campus climate, faculty supporting faculty, and understanding societal influences on leadership.

What did give pause was that sixteen percent of respondents said that they “feel their voice is not heard” and that they “feel disrespected” on their campuses. The FLDC is curious as to whether these responses are due to sexism, racism, ageism, or other organizational culture dynamics. In a Harvard Business Review article titled, “Do Your Employees Feel Respected?,” Kristie Rogers writes, “Employees report more disrespectful and uncivil behavior each year” (2018). One must therefore wonder if the 16% of the survey responses are the start of a new trend, why these faculty leaders responded that they do not feel respected, and in what positions or circumstances they do not feel respected. Additional follow up was clearly needed to help understand.

Moreover, the fall 2019 Womyn’s Survey revealed another interesting point regarding the types of support that have been beneficial to women leaders: faculty colleagues are instrumental in the support and development of leadership skills. A significant number of respondents — 91% — made that claim. This conclusion was confirmed by the list of opportunities identified by respondents as most desired to support their professional growth. The top two were mentorship and networking: faculty supporting faculty. This result aligns with the Faculty Leadership Institute focus groups’ feedback as well.


In addition to the overwhelming need for leadership development through mentoring opportunities, another theme emerged. Many survey respondents revealed that they have a strong interest in leadership development that includes “understanding societal influences on race, ethnicity, and gender effects on leadership.” As scholars and practitioners who will drive professional development offerings, the FLDC sees the need to acknowledge the varied lived experiences and dimensions that intersect to shape identities. If the ASCCC is to serve the leadership needs of women in community colleges, then it must consider the multiple identities that women hold and understand. Not acknowledging the intersection of those identities perpetuates a system given to the oppression and marginalization of women instead of fostering liberation and validation (Mitchell and Bean, 2020). Therefore, previous equity and diversity training, along with the Leadership Institute, proved to be helpful for leadership growth, but respondents identified that more training is needed, specifically to address equity, diversity, and intersectionality.


Often, this type of research generates more questions than answers. One must ask whether a connection exists between disrespect and incivility as a barrier to leadership, why respondents are saying they need professional development to understand race, ethnicity, and gender effects on leadership, and why some women feel that they do not belong. As a next step to answering these questions and digging deeper to get a full understanding of what both women and faculty of color need to feel supported in the community college system as leaders, the ASCCC will be sending out another survey to faculty statewide through listservs and organizations that include historically underrepresented groups such as women, black, latinx, Native-American, and Asian-Pacific Islander.

Additionally, the ASCCC will be launching a newly designed Faculty Empowerment and Leadership Academy projected to start in fall 2020, a one-on-one mentoring program focusing on curriculum and professional development activities that provide brave spaces to connect with other campus leaders and provide the space for courageous conversations that investigate equity, diversity, and inclusion. Participants will have the time to share personal and collective experiences on race, privilege, and oppression. The goal is to embolden new faculty leaders to advocate for transformative change on their campuses and to guide them by providing networking opportunities and guidance for navigating systems of higher education.

The ASCCC is also available to provide support through technical visits for any professional development needs a campus or local academic senate may have in supporting women, faculty of color, and all leadership development. Requests can be made by emailing a description of the need to info [at] The Academic Senate looks forward to being a resource and service to all faculty and colleges.

We are all complex human beings with diverse lived experiences. These efforts to support women and faculty of color could be the start of an intentional determination to invite more voices to the spaces within academia. The ASCCC hopes all faculty will all be part of this commitment with us.


Diangelo, R. (2018). White Fragility. Boston: Beacon. 23.

Mitchell, E and Bean, M. (2020, February). Sex, Gender, Race, and Economic Disadvantage: Courageous Conversations About Intersectionality. Rostrum. Retrived from the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges website:…

Muhs, G. G., Niemann, Y. F., González, C. & G., Harris, A. P., eds. (2012). Presumed Incompetent. Boulder, Co.: University Press of Colorado.

Rogers, K. (2018, July-August). Do Your Employees Feel Respected? Harvard Business Review. 62–71.Retrieved from the Harvard Business Review website:

Williams, K. C. (1994). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color. The Public Nature of Private Violence. M. A. Fineman
and R. Mykitiuk, eds. New York: Routledge. 93-118. Retrieved from

1. More information on the caucus can be found at