Utah professor fights gender inequality, combats sexual and domestic violence

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Danielle Jardine
Utah State University professor Susan Madsen is preventing inequality by providing opportunities for women in Utah to get educated, combat sexual and domestic violence and give them voices in the community through the Utah Women and Leadership Project. “I feel very called to the work I’m doing,” Madsen said. (Danielle Jardine)

Utah State University professor Susan Madsen is combatting gender inequality by providing opportunities for women in Utah to get educated, fight sexual and domestic violence and give them voices in the community through the Utah Women and Leadership Project.

Madsen is the founding director of the project and conducts research to better understand why and how inequality against women exists in both academic and professional settings. She is also the Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State.

Madsen started the Utah Women and Leadership Project 13 years ago at the request of the governor’s office and the Commissioner of Higher Education.

“They asked me to do some research on why more women in Utah were not going to and graduating from college,” Madsen said. “It’s been a very strong catalyst for change in the state.”

Madsen said the mission of the project is to strengthen the impact of Utah girls through planning, developing resources and convening gatherings and events for women throughout the state. “I feel very called to the work I’m doing,” Madsen said.

When they initially did the study, Madsen said many women reported feeling like they needed to go to college, but not necessarily graduate.

“They said they were supposed to go to college, but as soon as they got married or had a baby then they needed to drop college,” Madsen said. “They didn’t realize all the benefits of college and that we get educated for so many reasons.”

Madsen said many of the women who were interviewed initially assumed they had to choose between working full time and getting an education, or being a mother full time.

“There are so many opportunities to do both,” Madsen said. “Everybody’s life is different and it looks different for everyone.”

Madsen said she was young when she noticed she was different from those around her. Being outspoken, Madsen said she noticed her differences when she was a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Madsen said many of the women she interviewed cited local school and church leaders as putting down the necessity of a woman’s education. “You still hear high school counselors say to young women, ‘oh you don’t want that degree, that’s for men’,” Madsen said. “No it’s not.”

In continuing with her faith tradition, Madsen quoted Sherri L. Dew’s 2008 BYU Women’s Conference address about unleashing the power of “covenant-keeping women.”

“I talk often about the difference between culture and doctrine in the Church,” Madsen said. “It is clear from the prophet and conference quotes that women need to be prepared to use their voice.”

Madsen emphasized how important women’s voices are. “We cannot continue to have so many silent women in this church,” Madsen said. “We’ve got to unleash the power of women who are committed to community conversations, rational and logical thinking and education.”

Madsen said she used to feel she didn’t fit in with other Latter-Day Saint women because of her outspoken nature.

“I was raised with six brothers and I have a strong voice,” Madsen said. “It was probably only 10 years ago that I actually felt that God didn’t make me wrong.”

BYU student Maryanne Blake Bingham said she constantly receives comments about having to choose between a career and education, or being a mother.

“It bothers me because there’s an automatic assumption that first of all, I want children and second of all, that I don’t plan on pursuing my own career and education because of my family,” Bingham said. “No one is asking my husband the same kind of questions.”

BYU student Genny Cole said she often feels like her ambition is a “dealbreaker” to others.

“When I tell people my goals, many assume I don’t desire marriage or motherhood right now or call them a ‘dealbreaker’ and that breaks my heart,” Cole said.

Cole completed an honors capstone essay last semester regarding this very topic. “My conflicting feminine identity regarding career and academic goals and motherhood and marriage was the topic of my essay,” Cole said. “In reality is just isn’t a conflict, especially when I feel my goals are divinely directed.”

Cole said the culture in Utah and at church makes her feel like they often conflict.

“Obviously not every man or woman falls into the stereotypical beliefs of church culture,” Cole said. “Everyone’s measure of their divine creation is going to look so different from the next person and I just wish everyone would remember that more.”

Susan Madsen’s work is ongoing and she is working on updating research regarding sexual assault in the state of Utah with BYU professors Julie Valentine and Leslie Miles which will be released in early August.

“God needs us all to be doing the things that He has made us to do,” Madsen said.

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