Jennifer Sorenson’s leadership can be seen in her actions of building connections among women in her profession, creating support systems for women, and holding substantive discussions to address gaps or problems.
All have been in evidence since she joined Cal State San Bernardino in January 2016 as the director of Facilities Planning & Management. In July 2017, she became the associate vice president for Facilities Management and, in 2022, senior associate vice president.
On her initial promotion, Sorenson reached out to her counterpart, Winnie Kwofie, associate vice president of Facilities Development & Operations at Cal State East Bay. They discussed common issues in their division and the lack of women leaders within this area of campus administration. The outreach was second nature to Sorenson because sharing information and building bridges is what she does.
As she looked around her division at CSUSB, Sorenson saw that it was incredibly diverse in race, ethnicity and culture. However, where it was less diverse was in gender. When she looked into this further, in terms of building leadership from within each area, she saw that women were heavily represented in custodial services and were also part of the architectural team. Where they were less represented was in the area of skilled trades.
She realized that two things were necessary: increase the presence of women in the skilled trades and also construct a leadership pathway for women within all aspects of facilities management.
This led to a CSU TEDTalk in 2020, which discussed the role of women in this area of campus operations, both in leadership and in presence. The talk caught the attention of attendees, and a new program was born: Women in Facilities in the CSU. It was the brainchild of Sorenson, Kwofie, Amy Forte (director of administration, Capital Planning, Design and Construction or CPDC) and Elvyra (Vi) F. San Juan (assistant vice chancellor, CPDC).
Sorenson’s talk had spurred the CSU to take action.
The question for Sorenson was, What if we exposed cohort members to all aspects of facilities management and also introduced them to people? This would encompass: (1) exposure to custodial, grounds, maintenance and capital projects; (2) bringing in speakers to address the topic of impostor syndrome; (3) relying on Zoom for flexibility and access; (4) closing out the cohort with an in-person gathering at the Chancellor’s Office; and (5) providing a means for women to support one another.
The Women in Facilities’ first cohort included 12 women, each from a different CSU. A second cohort of about 20 participants is scheduled for 2023. Currently, the program is limited to managers by HR as it gets off the ground.
Sorenson notes that the first cohort continues to meet, even after their program ended. Also, several members of that initial cohort have been promoted up, either on their own campus or to other campuses.
In a December 2022 “CO in the Know” article, Forte laid out the CSU’s statistics: “Women make up only 27 percent of the CSU’s 372 facilities managers. Of the 101 women, six are associate vice presidents of facilities and three are directors of facilities operation.” So, while progress is being made, there is work still to be done.
Sorenson found the confidence to assume a place of leadership in this initiative from what she learned by watching and participating in the reinvigoration of CSUSB’s annual Women’s Conference soon after she arrived on campus. She identified a common thread among the women participants: they were asking, ‘What can we do to take action?’ This energized and empowered her.
In addition to building leadership, Sorenson has kept her eyes on growing the presence of women in the skilled trades, where they are currently underrepresented. The trades and construction remain male dominated, even after changes required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA. For example, there formerly were no restroom or shower facilities for women at construction sites, and men wouldn’t think twice about this lack.
So how does an institution of higher education, which does not offer courses in the skilled trades, promote women’s engagement in the field? By offering on-campus apprenticeships in the trades. This is a CSU-wide program, which CSUSB offers. Prior experience is not necessarily required. The women who participate can learn and grow their skillset in a more supportive environment. That way, should they wish to continue their post-apprenticeship employment elsewhere, they will have gained not only skills, but confidence to engage with a world or workspace where they may be an “only.”
Sorenson emphasizes that she has not built her career with a deliberate intent of breaking into work that employs fewer women. She explains, “I’ve never looked at a job or a position with the thought that I can’t do this because I’m a woman – that has never crossed my mind.” And, she adds, no one has ever told her, “You CAN’T do this.”
Rather, she credits her upbringing with providing the mindset to choose a career area that interested her, regardless of gender.
She grew up as the middle of three daughters of a single mother. Her parents divorced when she was 5 years old, so the situation in the house was: if something needs to be done, we have to do it. It was not a question of choosing or not choosing to take action.
She remembers telling her mother when she was small, “I want to be a nurse.”
Her mother’s response was to ask, “Why not a doctor?”
“Because doctors are men,” Sorenson replied.
Soon after, her mother (coincidentally or deliberately) transferred their care to a female pediatrician. This real-life example, along with a mother who told her daughters, “You can do whatever you want to do,” removed any built-in gendered expectations regarding careers. Her mother also made it clear: her daughters were going to go to college.
“I am a woman,” states Sorenson, “but I don’t define the work I do through the lens of being a woman. It is the work that I do; it is my job.” But that has not changed her awareness that a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion encompasses access to work and fields that are still not gendered as including women.
She adds a final plea, “I hate being the center of attention,” she says. “That’s why I’m in Facilities Management. I prefer to be behind the scenes.”
Whether behind the scenes or (only briefly, if she can help it) in front of them, Sorenson is taking steps through the apprenticeship program and the Women in Facilities program to build the change in her division, both here at CSUSB and in the CSU.