Breaking barriers: BYU professor shows women they can have it all

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At the start of each semester, BYU sociology professor Hayley Pierce is bombarded with questions:

“How old are you?”

“Who watches your kids?”

“How does your husband feel about you working?”

A majority of the faculty at BYU are male. Just 34% of full-time and part-time faculty are female, according to media relations manager Todd Hollingshead. In this environment, Pierce serves as a role model for young women who want to have both a successful career and family.

“You can take a quick read through my Rate My Professor or student reviews to know that I am a polarizing person,” Pierce said.

While she keeps to herself in her personal life and rarely conveys her own opinions in her teaching, she said the nature of teaching sociology makes it difficult for students to separate her from her course content.

Pierce also said she recognizes that her personable nature and inclination to use her own stories to illustrate course concepts is inviting to students. “However, these strengths, and the fact that I am a woman, makes me vulnerable to critique, as many students feel comfortable challenging my authority and expertise in class and in student reviews.”

She added that one student went so far as to write a review telling her to “get a testimony of the Family Proclamation and go home.” 

On the contrary, other BYU students have expressed their appreciation for having Pierce as a female role model in the academic sphere. “She’s the mom that I want to be one day,” said Ashlyn Bruschke, Pierce’s former student and teaching assistant.

Bruschke also mentioned Pierce’s vulnerability with her students. “The course topics can be hard and hit many people in very personal places. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Hayley cry as she shared personal stories and feelings with her students, and that makes her so incredible to me.”

Pierce took the time to talk with her SOC 367 students during March’s Honor Code confusion when emotions were running high, Bruschke said. “There were many tears shed but also so much camaraderie and love felt in that moment. She’s a friend to and advocate for all, and her students can see and feel that.”

Balancing Work and Family

As a TA, Bruschke said she got to see how much Pierce loves her kids and how much she does for them. “She balances her time and love between work and family so well, and that’s something I really look up to.”

“I balance things better some days than others,” Pierce said. “I read a tweet the other day that was quoting author Nora Roberts — basically it said that the key to balancing work and family is to know that some of the balls that you juggle are made of glass, and others are made of plastic. Knowing this helps you prioritize what you keep in the air and what can occasionally drop.”

She listed some of the things she has to juggle: “Deadline on an extra grant,” “applying to the additional conference,” “saying yes to such and such speaking arrangement,” “crazy hair day at school,” “playing one more game of Uno.”

“Of course, I do my best to juggle all of it, but sometimes I pass the ball on to my husband, sometimes I say no, sometimes I gently put a plastic ball down, and occasionally a glass ball shatters,” she said. “But as long as I and my family know that I’m doing my best, that’s just about all I can do.”

BYU sociology professor Hayley Pierce hikes with her husband and two kids. As a working mom, Pierce is a role model to her students. (Hayley Pierce)

College Years

Pierce started out as an undergraduate student at BYU. As a first-generation college student, university life was a brand new ballgame. She said her parents are the hardest working people she knows, but just in a different arena.

“College was just kind of a foreign concept to my parents,” Pierce said. “I had endless support, but not in the ways that helped me navigate a university setting.”

Pierce found a mentor in BYU sociology professor Renata Forste.

“Hayley was initially a student in my Introduction to Sociology course which had over 175 students and met in one of the big rooms in the basement of the JFSB,” Forste said, adding that Pierce’s engagement in the class made her stand out.

Pierce went to Forste’s office hours early on. “It was a big intro course and so it was nice that (Forste) took the time to talk to me,” Pierce said. “She just helped me navigate the university setting and reminded me that I could apply for scholarships and grants. She was kind of the first to say, ‘You can do this if you want.’”

Forste said she has always encouraged her students to decide what path is best for them, adding that having a family and having a career aren’t mutually exclusive.

“I think Hayley has always been very organized and able to manage her time well, which has been important as she balances work and family,” Forste said. “She is not only smart, but disciplined.”

Pierce graduated from BYU with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology. After that, she went on to receive another master’s and a Ph.D. in demography from the University of California, Berkeley.

“I started my Ph.D. pregnant and had my first son right after my first two semesters. I had my preliminary exams a week and a half after he was born. So all of my cohort would come to my apartment and study while I nursed the baby,” Pierce said. “That was kind of surreal. I’m kind of known for that. Like, ‘you’re the girl that had a baby right before your preliminary exams.’”

She was also pregnant with her second son while she finished the drafts of her dissertation, as well as during the hiring process at BYU. “To get hired you have to teach in a class. I was three weeks out from delivering when I interviewed. I had dreams that my water was going to break mid-presentation.”

Pierce and her family pose at her Berkeley graduation in 2018. She started her Ph.D. pregnant with her first son and was pregnant with her second while finishing the drafts of her dissertation. (Hayley Pierce)

Tragedy and Current Research

Pierce’s current research focuses on the health and well-being of mothers and children. She feels dedicated to serving these populations as a mother herself.

Something Pierce looks at is how resources and opportunities affect wellness outcomes for mothers and children. Limited resources can lead to tragic outcomes. This was apparent in Uganda, where Pierce was part of a research team as an undergraduate student.

The team found a woman at a health center who had been in active labor for upwards of six hours.

“That’s just not how it should be,” Pierce said. “This mother actually already had two miscarriages late in her pregnancies, so she shouldn’t have even been in a health center. She should have been at the hospital from the beginning.” Limited transportation and money in rural areas made this difficult. 

The OB-GYN who was part of the trip stepped in and helped stimulate contractions. She gave Pierce, who was holding on to the woman’s leg, an ominous warning: “Brace yourself, this baby probably didn’t survive.” 

When the woman finally gave birth, it was too late. The baby was dead. “You don’t forget that,” Pierce said, adding that she’s sure the baby would be alive if the mother had been at a hospital.

Pierce spent time in Uganda as an undergraduate student working with mothers and children. It was there that she experienced the death of an infant in childbirth. The experiences she had there help drive her passion for maternal and child well-being. (Hayley Pierce)

This experience, along with having her own kids, plays a role in Pierce’s research. She talked about the difference between the health centers in Uganda and where she delivered her kids. “They’re just entirely different. The resources, the amenities are entirely different,” she said.

Pierce said she wants her research to matter for women and children around the world. One of her big goals is to reduce maternal mortality in the United States. She said she also wants to be a mentor for others just like the mentors she has been blessed to have.

Looking back on the student’s comment that she should “get a testimony of the Family Proclamation and go home,” Pierce said members of the Church have created narrow definitions for “nurture” and “provide.”

“This nurture versus provide dynamic has become a dangerous weapon that ‘we’ use to patrol the decisions of others,” Pierce said, adding that there are lots of ways to provide for and nurture children.

Pierce said she wants all men and women to seek their full potential and do what’s best for themselves and their families. This can be accomplished by moving past cultural roadblocks.

“If we can remove these barriers, we can save women from unnecessary stress, heartache and frustration,” she said.

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