Successful women in academia encourage female students to advocate for themselves

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BYU professor Eva Witesman speaks during a panel event hosted by Global Women’s Studies at the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies. The panelists discussed how women need to advocate for themselves to accomplish their goals and pursue their passions. (Melanie Andrews)

Four successful women, each with doctorate degrees, said women in academia need to advocate for themselves to accomplish their goals and pursue their passions during a panel discussion hosted by Global Women’s Studies and the Kennedy Center on Oct. 27.

Denise Stephens, associate professor of physics and astronomy at BYU, said that when she was pregnant with her son as a professor at BYU, she went to her department chair looking for direction on BYU’s policies on pregnant staff. The chair said he didn’t know what to do and wanted her to figure it out. 

“I was very shocked, there was very little, if any information here at BYU,” Stephens said. Women trying to pursue a career and family need to find people to support them in their goals, she added.

Eva Witesman, BYU associate professor of public management at The Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics, said women in academia have more empathy building experiences than some of their male colleagues. These experiences allow them to speak up for those who no longer have the energy required to do so, she said.

“I think there is sort of this middle ground where maybe you’re not so exhausted from having actually lived that experience that you still have some energy left to sort of reach out and, in addition to mentoring people, actually start to push back and advocate for systemic change,” Witesman said. 

The women also talked about balance and being able to say no when someone needs a break. “You don’t always have to be out there fighting. And if you are tired, put down your sword for a minute, it’s OK,” Witesman said.

Kristin Matthews is an English, African studies and American studies professor at BYU as well as a Global Women’s Studies affiliate at BYU. Matthews said that as a single woman without children, many people expect her to have the time and energy to do more than some of her colleagues. 

“People will want to push those boundaries and you will have to just kind of gently say ‘no thank you,’ ” Matthews said. “Work/life balance takes different forms for all of us in academia, but it’s important to make sure you carve out that space to rest, to recharge for relationships, because otherwise it could grind you down.” 

Jerica Berge, professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, said the biggest challenge for women in academia is that they are starting behind the starting line. Berge said women should know they are meant to be there and they can push forward and succeed, despite the disparities. 

“Be OK being the outlier,” Berge said. 

Additional panels and events at The David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies can be found on the center’s event calendar.

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