The Words of East Bay’s Female Leaders: Their Personal Stories of Success and Challenges

Encouraging driven and like-minded female students to persevere in the pursuit of career equity
By Sarah Rodriguez, COPY EDITOR
The Pioneer Online reached out to female faculty members at California State University, East Bay, to share their first-hand encounters with gender-based career obstacles, stories of success, and advice to aspiring female students.

A glance around campus reveals dozens of female leaders among CSUEB’s faculty. Throughout years of uncertainty and failed opportunities, their success stories remain as a token of female perseverance in the face of gender adversity.

Cathy Sandeen | California State University, East Bay President

From her first job at a photo developing counter in a camera store to now the president of CSUEB, Dr. Cathy Sandeen’s success story is the epitome of female perseverance.

With a love for school and a background in education, President Sandeen’s career path began as an aspiring professor. Sandeen says, “There’s positive energy at a university, and because it’s mission-driven, there is a dedication to helping individuals and society through education- it really excited me.”

Like many women pursuing higher education, Sandeen faced a number of career obstacles related to societal gender roles. Early in her career, she faced difficulty finding job opportunities within her desired field and location. With her husband’s inability to relocate, she was forced to extend outside of her original career path as an educator.

“It was related to me being a woman and having to put my career secondary to my husband’s career,” said Sandeen. Despite having to compromise her initial plans, the detour led her to an unexpected interest in the administrative side of higher education.

“Initially, it was an obstacle because my circumstances prevented me from pursuing what I thought was my first choice, a professor, but actually where I landed coalesced into an exciting and dynamic career path for me.”

Her advice to the aspiring female students that make the CSUEB campus is:

“The most important thing is to stay focused and finish that degree. It’s difficult and challenging at times, but having that degree in hand puts you in a completely different category. Realize that a career is in no way a straight line. As my story illustrates, you can actually go in sort of a squiggly line and end up in places that you never imagined. And for the newer generation, you might be working in industries that haven’t even been created yet – things are happening and evolving so fast that you have to keep an open mind to possibility.”

Lynn Comerford | Women Studies Director, Department of Human Development & Lecturer of Women’s Studies

In her early twenties, Dr. Lynn Comerford was doing anything but settling into a career. She says her early exploratory years were spent traveling the world and exploring New York City on a non-existent budget. It wasn’t until her late twenties as a graduate student at Fordham University when Comerford began her teaching career as a part-time instructor at Hostos Community College in the South Bronx.

Although initially, she had no prior intentions to pursue a Ph.D. and teach, Comerford saw her experience at Hostos Community College as an example of the meaningful work she strived to pursue.

Like other career women starting a family, Comerford faced challenges when she gave birth to her daughter just five months after arriving at CSUEB as a professor. “I was the only woman faculty member in our department at the time with a child. The tenure clock ticked loud for me,” she says.

For Comerford, the U.S. Government’s 12-week unpaid maternity leave was not an option. The burden of economic barriers, like the need to pay rent, buy food, and diapers for her newborn child, did not allow for unpaid leave.

She says, “The power of parenthood took over, and I didn’t give a damn what anyone said or thought about me. I knew that I should be able to combine being both an academic and a parent; it was nose to the grindstone.” She said the experience of juggling work, parenting, and a relationship helped form her understanding of the stresses Human Development & Women’s Studies students share.

Her advice to the aspiring female students that make up the CSUEB campus is:

“Reflect upon their lives and be brutally honest with themselves. Women who work and raise children can find themselves in a constant state of reaction rather than reflection. Slow down and find time away from work and family, even if it’s just to go for a walk (or hide in the bathtub under the bubbles). I also think it’s important for women to learn to say “no.”Figure out what your priorities are, focus on them, and trim the extraneous.”

Samantha Francois | Lecturer of U.S. History and Women’s History

Before her career as a professor, Dr. Samantha Francois originally began her undergraduate years with an interest in advertisement. Unsatisfied with her original career choice, while pursuing a bachelor’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley, her passion for teaching became increasingly apparent.

Reminiscing on the career transition, she says, “As a teenager, I babysat a lot and loved kids, then in high school and college I worked with a summer bridge program for middle school kids, and it all helped me realize that I really wanted to be a teacher.”

Francois first faced gender-related career obstacles when she started her family. “I was pregnant when I was interviewing for jobs, and my major advisor was really clear with me like you know…you don’t need to tell anyone.” Besides the conspicuous challenges pregnant working women face in the workforce, there is pressure to balance a career with motherhood.

In expressing the difficulty she faced on the subject, she adds, “I think our society is still trying to reconcile working women and family roles and unfortunately, society hasn’t adapted in ways and instead, it’s often that women have to adapt.”

Her advice to the aspiring female students that make up the CSUEB campus is:

“Be resilient, keep reaching for your dreams, recognize that there are going to be obstacles in your way but that you can overcome them. Create the kind of life that you want in terms of work and family. It’s important to think about what it is that you want out of life and strive to have that balance.”

These inspiring women began their path as driven students and chose to persevere despite the societal pressure that accompanies a contemporary career woman. Today women are now the majority in higher-education enrollment, reaching an astounding 60% of all students, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports. With women like President Sandeen, Dr. Comerford, and Dr. Francois as the foundation of our campus,’ it’s no surprise that each year this number continues to climb.