20 Years of Empowering Women

April 16, 2012

The laughs and chatter of nearly a hundred teenage girls echo through the Student Union. It's still early — just past 8 a.m. on a perfect, nearly-spring Saturday. Many of the girls are visiting the University of Arizona campus for the first time.

They're having fun, but they're here to learn, and for the rest of the day they'll tackle issues around self-esteem, bullying, body image and ways to achieve their goals — all part of the 2012 Young Women's Empowerment Academy presented by the UA Commission on the Status of Women.

The Academy began six years ago as a replacement for "Bring Your Daughter to Work Day" for UA staff. As capacity grew, the Commission reached out to regional schools, especially those with fewer graduates going on to college, says Commission co-chair Susan Richards.

It wasn't about displacing boys, she says, and in fact, the event is open to boys. None have participated so far, but that may change soon as the Commission itself has changed since its creation in the early 90s.

Working for Women & Men Alike

"It started out quite female-oriented," Richards explains. "It was more about making sure that women were treated equally and had equal opportunities. I still think there are discrepancies that need to be addressed, but it is important to have men and women at the table to ensure that we can implement our mission, which is to help create an environment that allows both women and men to be successful in their employment or education."

Focus on Family

Richards characterizes the discrepancies that remain as more subtle, built on hidden cultural biases, and notes that the Commission's recent work tackles those inequities that are more fundamental than paychecks and promotions.

It fought for and helped establish, for example, a parental leave program for UA graduate teaching assistants, guaranteeing their assistantships on return and providing up to six weeks' paid leave, not just for the birth of a child but for other medical issues, as well. 

"I think it’s a nice example of recognizing that things like childcare are not just a woman’s domain," Richards says, adding that a related challenge — family care on campus — remains a Goliath the Commission hopes to someday best. "We'll have to start small," she says, "but we’re in the process of forming alliances that will hopefully lead to a successful program for all constituencies: students, faculty and staff."

Creating Options, Making a Difference

Skeptics may wonder: By focusing on issues like family leave and childcare, does the Commission reinforce the stereotype of women as caregivers?

"I think it’s actually the opposite," Richards answers. "Caring for family is a shared challenge, and having childcare on campus would mean that guys can pull their weight as much as women can, so really it’s about inclusiveness and giving families options."

That campus-wide program Richards envisions isn't just over the horizon, but she believes the Commission has an important role to play in making it happen.

"I’ve never been with a group like this that actually delivers so much," she says. "Building alliances, getting a critical mass — that’s really what it takes. It takes a bit of patience, yes, but people are engaged. They want to make a difference, and they are making a difference."

Get Involved: The Commission on the Status of Women is open to all UA staff and faculty and will host a recruiting event Thursday April 26, 3 to 5 p.m., in the Saguaro Room of the El Portal Building, 501 N. Highland Ave.