Denise Stephens was shocked when she applied for a BYU faculty position more than a decade ago and found there were no female faculty members in the physics department. She was also surprised at the gender-biased questions she was asked in her interview.
“I knew I needed to come back to BYU to become a role model for female students and to start pushing for change in the way men, women and the Church view women in their talents and abilities,” Stephens said.
Female faculty members can experience a unique set of challenges, according to the American Association of University Professors. These can include lower promotion rates, sexual harassment and bias in advancement opportunities.
BYU’s Faculty Women’s Association, of which Stephens is currently president, is an organization that helps create a supportive environment for female faculty members to excel in their careers.
The association will celebrate its 25th anniversary at its annual spring retreat April 24. The retreat will take place at the conference center with Brigitte Madrian, the dean of the Marriott School, as the keynote speaker.
Madrian’s address will begin at 9 a.m., after which several breakout sessions covering topics such as mental health, mindfulness and personal writing will follow. Those interested in attending can register prior to the event.
“The mission of FWA is to be a voice for faculty women on campus,” Stephens said. “To unite women from all different departments and disciplines and be a support network.”
According to Faculty Women’s Association president-elect Julie Damron, organization members participate in monthly activities that range from educational to lighthearted. The organization also hosts an annual spring retreat where participants are inspired by notable female speakers.
The idea for a female faculty association began at a retreat for the women’s studies faculty in 1993. According to Damron, they noticed difficulties that being women in academia faced and wanted to provide female faculty members with friendship, support and mentorship.
Damron said the Faculty Women’s Association achieves this by linking the relatively sparse female faculty across campus.
“It offers camaraderie among women faculty who are often alone in their department and separated into different departments,” Damron said. “We start to realize that our experiences are very similar.”
Women faculty members often feel timid about seeking leadership roles, according to Damron. She said meeting females in similar roles can help inspire women to get more involved at the university.
“Historically women haven’t been in the majority in terms of leadership at BYU, and so we hesitate a little bit,” Damron said. “But when we meet with other women who are strong leaders, then it’s inspiring, and we know that it’s a possibility, that it’s an option for us.”
Stephens said BYU has become much more aware of female faculty since her first days at the university.
“When I first joined FWA, doors were literally slammed in our faces when we asked for change,” Stephens said. “Now, I see more support and other organizations like the Faculty Advisory Council and the BYU Faculty Center doing more to listen to women.”
Damron said being a part of the Faculty Women’s Association has been a valuable part of her BYU experience and encourages anyone to join.
“This is a great safe place,” Damron said. “(Women) can come and talk about issues that they’re having and talk about how we can support each other and help each other and share our stores. It’s open for everybody, and we want people to attend.”