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Women comprise the entire executive leadership team at the Community College of Denver.

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Female students outnumber their male counterparts on college campuses—a statistic that has held strong for years—but leadership ranks are often heavily stocked with men. The Community College of Denver, however, is an exception, with an all-female executive leadership team.

President Marielena DeSanctis, who joined the college in January 2021, says she inherited a largely female executive team, and as the team saw turnover, she filled the empty positions with women.

“I don’t know that I would say it’s been purposeful at all to have an all-female team,” she said. “I think as each position has come forward, and as I’ve worked with this team, it’s just a very happy coincidence that the very best people possible for these roles all happen to be female.”

Statistically speaking, DeSanctis is an anomaly. The majority of college presidents are white men, a trend that is slowly changing, but as a Latina, she is an outlier. Yet it’s her experience as a woman of color and someone who has broken through the glass ceiling in higher education—and in her past career as an engineer—that she said allows her to connect with a student body that skews female and Hispanic.

Glass Ceilings

DeSanctis and her executive leadership team note the challenges women face as they try to carve out careers in higher education: they face pay disparities and rampant sexism, and many have the added pressures of accommodating a spouse’s career goals and caring for a family. A recent Gallup survey found that 28 percent of women in academe believe they’ve been passed over for a promotion because of their gender.

“Our whole leadership team has earned additional degrees while we worked full-time,” said Kathy Kaoudis, vice president of administrative services and chief financial officer at the Community College of Denver. “That’s really, I think, something that men don’t necessarily have to deal with. I think they usually end up getting the master’s or their doctoral degree right out of school, whereas women end up putting it off and then having to combine it with taking care of children and household and their job, which is not a small thing.”

Then, once women are hired, there’s often a perception that they were selected as a diversity choice—that colleges are bringing them on board to “check a box” rather than because of their qualifications.

Data compiled by the women-focused nonprofit Catalyst note that women are more commonly found in lower-ranking academic positions. For example, women are less likely to be in tenured faculty positions compared to their male peers. And that’s especially true for women of color.

When it comes to leadership roles, the data also skew in favor of men, according to an analysis from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. Over all, women comprise about a third of college presidents and 44 percent of provosts.

And even in the higher ranks of postsecondary education, the gender pay gap persists. For every dollar male presidents made in 2020, their female counterparts made $0.91, per CUPA-HR’s analysis. But having women at the top is good for the gender: one recent study found that women who worked under female presidents earned more and were promoted more frequently than those who worked for men.

Some observers note that community colleges do a better job than four-year institutions of hiring women and people of color in top positions.

“Yes, there are fewer women in those executive leadership roles across institutions of higher ed, but there are more women and more women of color and people of color in executive leadership roles in the community colleges than in our four-year partner institutions,” said Ruthanne Orihuela, provost and vice president for academic affairs at the Community College of Denver.

Data on disparities between male and female presidents are somewhat dated. And for other executive positions, these numbers can be hard to pin down. But the American College President Study from the American Council on Education does offer a glimmer of hope. While only 30 percent of presidents in 2016 were women—the last year surveyed—that number was up from 9.5 percent in 1986, said Hironao Okahana, assistant vice president of research at ACE. Likewise, numbers are trending up for presidents of color.

A new edition of the American College President Study is set for release next spring. While Okahana said it’s too soon to garner any insights from the forthcoming study, which is underway now, he notes that the new edition will focus on women’s pathways to leadership positions.

“There will be a lot of lessons that we hope we can draw from this flagship survey,” Okahana said, noting that it will also offer insights into “the presidential experience in the time of COVID.”

Mirroring Students

Colleges have long worked to recruit faculty and staff members of color. Part of the reason, experts say, is so that students can connect with relatable figures and learn from those who look like them. And an Inside Higher Ed/College Pulse survey from November found that students often want mentors from the same race and gender. For example, 40 percent of female students prefer a mentor of the same gender, compared to only 14 percent of male students, according to the survey results.

“We work so hard to try to make our staff and our faculty mirror our community and our student population, but we don’t always look at gender as a component of that,” Kaoudis said.

And at the Community College of Denver, the all-female executive leadership team feels that seeing is believing when it comes to letting others know that it’s possible to make it themselves. They can serve as examples to uplift students who may need to know that pathways are possible.

“I can speak from being poor, I can speak from being an immigrant, I can speak from being a Black woman and LGBTQ,” said Gillian McKnight-Tutein, vice president of student services at the Community College of Denver. “I can navigate several spaces where people feel less than or other.”

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