More than 100 women in leadership roles in higher education gathered April 17 to hear Soraya Coley, Cal Poly Pomona’s new president, speak on ways women leaders can “use their voices” to empower students and other leaders, and make inroads into the male-dominated leadership ranks. Her address was at the American Council on Education Women’s Leadership Forum held at Cal State Fullerton.
Cal State Fullerton President Mildred García opened the program, stating “I find it impossible to meet in groups like this and not take note of this particular time in history. We’ve seen the first Latina, Sonia Sotomayor, take her place on the Supreme Court. We’ve seen more women become involved at high levels in politics and even become presidents of our institutions.
“Indeed,” García continued, “we have accomplished a lot, but to paraphrase what I tell our graduates every year, ‘It’s where we go from here that really matters.’ Equity issues women face in the workplace, particularly women of color, continue to plague the nation’s workforce…. That’s why we are here today, to learn to use our voices to ‘lead with strength.'”
Coley served as dean of Cal State Fullerton’s College of Human Development and Community Service, and most recently, as provost and vice president for academic affairs at CSU Bakersfield prior to becoming the first female president at Cal Poly Pomona.
“Many times when women raise their voices we’re accused of being angry,” said Coley. “But often we must raise our voices simply to be heard. The power of our voices and our language can tear down what separates us and build up what unites us.”
Coley went on to say that women’s voices are needed and often help those who need advocates.
“While I was at Cal State Fullerton, I was told that some day I could be a college president,” she said. ” I dismissed it at the time … but the wonderment was planted.”
Coley told the group that higher education needs dedicated and committed women leaders to prepare for the challenges ahead — lean budgets, increased costs, assets needed for a changing population — all the while remaining focused on student success.
“There are systemic industrial barriers and personal barriers,” she said. “There are historic patterns of exclusion for women, especially women of color, that begin in early childhood.”
When she was a child, growing up in segregated North Carolina, Coley once spotted a little girl eating a hot dog at a Woolworth’s lunch counter and decided she’d like a hot dog, too. As she scrambled up to the counter, her mother pulled her back and explained that she’d give her a hot dog at home…. it was not polite to eat in public.
The point, according to Coley, was that her mother had to make a split-second decision — did she tell her daughter the truth of why she couldn’t sit at the counter or try to protect her sense of worth, something that needs to happen in early childhood. Her mother opted for the latter.
“To what extent do you believe you belong?” she said. “This is true for women and particularly, women of color. Nationally, only 30.4 percent of full-time professors are women despite the fact that 57 percent of college students are female.
“Universities are often risk averse,” Coley continued. “It is often assumed that men are more competent than women. And sadly, women of color are often presumed to be incompetent. Clearly, these attitudes need to change.”
Coley recounted a reception she attended as a finalist for the president’s position at an out-of-state college. She met with several administrators, professors, donors and community leaders — most of whom were men. One donor came up to her and said, “The only thing I care about is football. Do you like football?”
Coley responded that sometimes she’d watch football with her husband and then asked the donor, “But do you like literature?” The donor chuckled and said, “You’re all right.” Another man apologized for the lack of shopping malls in the area.
“Do you really think that as a president, I would have that much time to go shopping?” she said. “I needed to respond as my authentic self. We need to break the mold of what people think we should be and put our gifts on the ‘institutional table.'”
Coley pointed out that women can often learn lessons from “doors that didn’t open.
“Go beyond what you think you can do,” she told the crowd. “You need to be effective and accountable but also understand the benefits of working collaboratively. Understand how to do your best with whatever you have.”
The program included a panel discussion on “Valuing Your Unique Leadership Style, Using Your Voice, Leading With Strength” and a networking lunch. Participants also had the opportunity to share their reflections before closing remarks.