As a child, Regina Lewis experienced poverty. She faced challenges as a young, single woman raising a son. But as a student at Pikes Peak Community College, she learned that she was capable and competent.
Today, Lewis is a sought-after speaker who heads her own business and also serves as department chair and professor of communications and special assistant to the president for academic excellence at PPCC.
Having earned dual bachelor’s degrees in communications and psychology, a master’s in communications and a Ph.D. in educational leadership, all at UCCS, she is a role model for young women who are looking to become the leaders of the next generation.
Education plays a crucial role in shaping expectations about leadership for both men and women, and serves as a baseline to prepare women for leadership roles, said Warren Epstein, PPCC’s executive director of marketing and communications.
“The next [UCCS Chancellor Emerita] Pam Shockley-Zalabak or [political candidate] Stephany Rose Spaulding might be working in a restaurant or washing dishes,” Epstein said. “There’s so much potential out there, and education is the best way out of poverty.”
The number of women running Fortune 500 companies in 2020 rose to an all-time high of 37, according to Fortune’s annual compilation. But that represents only 7.4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. Furthermore, only three of the female CEOs are women of color.
“Everything from corporate board representation to senior leadership positions is pretty poor” when it comes to women, said Dr. Karen Markel, dean of the UCCS College of Business.
“We have to be deliberate in educating both men and women to advance qualified candidates,” Markel said.
MODELING THE WAY
Lewis enrolled in PPCC as a single mother who was living in poverty.
She credits several instructors and counselors who served as her mentors with igniting her interest in learning and inspiring her to realize how far she could go.
She found help at the school’s writing center, math lab, Office of Accommodative Services and Instructional Support and veterans center. Lewis served in the U.S. Air Force during Operation Desert Storm.
“All of those pieces really played a significant role in my moving forward as a leader,” Lewis said. “I learned that when you have these types of classes in small groups and talking to one another, it sets an example and models the way on what I need to do when I get into those positions. And so I was able to come back and do the same thing for other people.”
Lewis encourages young women to speak up in her communications classes.
“A lot of women’s voices are muted because that is their expectation,” she said. “We help them to see where in the community their voices could be used.”
Lewis works to help young women from diverse cultural backgrounds find their voices and explore their leadership potential through a program called Real Talk.
“Real Talk is a conversation about the unique challenges of different cultural backgrounds,” she said. “Each month when we were physically together, we would focus on a different group of women.”
The group would discuss particular challenges with a panel of experts and navigate solutions. Those who were not within the cultural group would talk about how they could support those who faced the challenge.
PPCC also helps students to connect with others who face similar challenges and with successful business leaders.
“I call it your success entourage,” she said. “It helps people to recognize that they’re not in it alone, and you get to see other women leaders who have navigated these unique challenges — how they do that and get to sit at the decision-making table, how to show up in spaces that otherwise they would not be able to get into.”
As Lewis navigated her own challenges, she realized that understanding conscious and unconscious biases limited women from being in positions of leadership.
Understanding cultural biases — both our own and those of others — is a key to changing that, she said, pointing out that PPCC requires new employees to complete unconscious bias training.
“We’re starting to examine our policies, practices and procedures so that we can see it at a systemic level,” Lewis said. “We’re not at the point where we’re breaking the ceiling, and we can’t break it as long as this is part of the system to keep it unbreakable.”
CLOSING THE GENDER GAP
Markel also serves as a leadership role model for young women.
“More than half of our student body in the College of Business is women, and that’s a very normal demographic distribution in business schools,” Markel said. Yet only “one in four deans of colleges of businesses are women.”
Markel said she focuses on drawing from a diverse applicant pool when hiring for faculty positions.
“We want our young women to see women in leadership positions as their faculty so that they can see how they can be successful along the way,” she said.
UCCS has several programs that help young women develop leadership skills and find areas where they can succeed.
One, called R.O.A.R., prepares undergraduates to transition from college to career. In the final phase of the program, students are paired with professional mentors.
“All of those experiences help you feel more confident to enter the workforce,” Markel said.
To help close the gender gap, she said, “we have to provide an environment that is more gender-neutral.”
Colorado’s Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, which went into effect in January, is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done, Markel said.
“Traditionally — and we see this with COVID — women have disproportionately left the workforce to manage family caregiving responsibility,” she said. “What is it about our society that that’s the path?”
Markel said it will be interesting to see how that division of labor shakes out after the pandemic.
In her own family, “my husband has always been my biggest supporter, and we have a shared responsibility for work and caregiving responsibilities,” she said. “I’m very optimistic that young men and women look at it as more of a partnership and … think about those typically gendered roles in a very non-gendered way.”
Overcoming gender stereotypes needs to start long before students are ready to enter college, Harrison School District 2 Superintendent Wendy Birhanzel said.
“If they want to be in a typical male career field, we want them to be the first girl that’s going to enter that,” Birhanzel said. “We see that almost as a challenge.”
Introducing girls and young women to role models is an important part of the equation.
Eighth grade girls take a full-day field trip each year to the El Paso County Courthouse to meet women judges and attorneys, District 2 Public Information Officer Christine O’Brien said.
The district also invites alumni and business leaders to speak about leadership and partners with the city, county and nonprofits to offer girls opportunities to observe and even work on projects.
“Many professionals don’t think about what they have to offer in the realm of mentoring or speaking to a class … or job shadow for a couple of hours,” O’Brien said. The district encourages those partnerships.
“Those are meaningful opportunities for our students who can just connect with someone, even on a phone call, to ask them about their career and how they got started,” O’Brien said. “It takes very little time, but it can leave a lasting impact.”
Birhanzel noted that Harrison High School girls worked on the Circle Drive Bridges Student Ambassadors Program. The students worked with engineers, the city and a public relations consultant to educate and gather feedback from the community while learning about the planning and design process.
Students were invited to meet with developer Darsey Nicklasson on March 18 for the groundbreaking of Mosaica, an attainable housing community in the district, and will follow the project through to its completion, Birhanzel said.
With more opportunities like that, “hopefully this next generation will kill the ‘first female ever’ in positions because they’ll be the second or third,” she said. “They’ll reach back and get other women into the position where we can change that stereotype.”
Athletics play a great role in developing young women’s teamwork and leadership skills, said Stephanie Leasure, athletic director and business manager at Colorado Springs School District 11’s Doherty High School.
Leasure works with 21 coaches in sports ranging from soccer to swimming.
“We preach empathy, we preach service and we preach that everyone has the same value,” Leasure said. “We also work on, ‘I’m an individual, I can take care of myself.’ If young women feel strong, they won’t be scared to take on leadership roles.”
Young women are prominent in Doherty’s career and technology education classes, said Charmyn Neumeyer, chair of the business and computer science department.
Female students have opportunities to serve as team and group leaders as they work on projects in courses that cover architecture, engineering, computer science, automotive technology, business and finance.
The school also hosts career and technology student organizations where young women can hone leadership skills and sponsors them in competitions judged by industry professionals.
“We also introduce them to strong role models and professional experts who are making breakthroughs and setting great examples,” Neumeyer said.
“We have found that the more willing our leaders are to share how they made it on their pathway, the more our young women are able to look at those strong female leaders, and it’s almost like holding a mirror up and saying, ‘OK, she did these things, and I see myself in her, and I can do those things too.’”