By Katelyn Rousch
Eight years ago, Patricia McSteen, Ph.D., was attending a meeting that was, unfortunately, just like any other. A muted rainbow of suit jackets and blazers were pressed together, everyone’s shoulders sagging in the humid space. But it wasn’t the heat that bothered McSteen.
“When I would go to meetings with large groups of colleagues across campus it was a very common occurrence for women to be referred to or introduced as just using their first name, and men in the room in the same setting were referred to as doctor or by their title,” McSteen says.
McSteen is the current Associate Dean of Students at Ohio University and holds a doctorate in counselor education, but she was commonly referred to as “Patti” in professional settings and emails.
These kinds of issues are difficult to address, especially for one person. Automatic neglect of professional titles is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the social hurdles many women face in traditionally male-dominated settings. Rather than being complimented on work-related successes, women are often given praise for their appearance. Directness is valued in male speech but criticized in women who use the same tone or word choice. Passionate women are given other labels. Loud. Angry. Out-of-place.
Unlike issues with more visible statistics such as the wage gap, executive representation and domestic violence, commonplace habits like those listed above form an invisible network that contributes to the culture and environment of a place. They function like a camera that focuses on all the wrong things. An arm. A tree. A passing car. But the individual remains a blurry face whose contribution to the greater picture is hard to quantify. Though these habits can easily be dismissed on a case-by-case basis, they add up, accumulating like sand grains trickling to the bottom of an hourglass.
For McSteen, time was up. Something had to be done. The climate surrounding women on campus was slowly weathering away both the credibility and validation of female professionals.
“Back in 2012, I started to see what I thought was a trend of things moving in the opposite direction for women and the climate for women on campus,” McSteen says. “I had this thought in my head for developing a program for undergraduate women… [where they] have this ripple effect across campus.”
It was after an hour of standing in line beneath the shade of a screaming Cedar Point coaster that she shared her idea with Tanya Barnett, Ph.D., who worked with the University College. According to McSteen, Barnett told her, “Whatever happens, I want in.” Susanne Dietzel, Ph.D., who was then the director of the Women’s Center, gave McSteen the same response after listening days later from the chlorinated shallows of a local pool.
“I was feeling the support from other women, who were feeling the same things, having the same experiences,” McSteen says.
The trio quickly got to work, securing two years of funding for the program. Following a recommendation from her boss, McSteen met with the founder of the Alice Baldwin Scholars, Colleen Scott, at Duke University. On the North Carolinian campus of towering Gothic and Georgian architecture, these feminist masterminds discussed their ideas. With a few modifications to Scott’s program, a year of planning and the addition of their creative twists, the women successfully formed the Margaret Boyd Scholars Program, named for the first female graduate of Ohio University.
“What I believe to my core is that it has to start at a grassroots level and because of the environment where I work, the logical decision for me was undergraduate women are the ones who can make things change,” McSteen says.
In Athens, the temperate canopy of college green is just starting to tint with the pigments of fall. A majority of students have been gone much longer than ever before, including the Boyd Scholars. Though Ohio University has long advocated for diversity and inclusion, there is always room for improvement. But change takes people. In this case, students. McSteen explains the goal of the Margaret Boyd Program is to provide undergraduate women with the opportunities and resources to become agents of change for the community and beyond.
“There’s a lot of research that supports the idea that women’s ways of leading have a different impact on communities and change,” McSteen says, “I think bringing a women’s voice to the table brings a necessary and high-level contribution.”
Dappled sunlight peeks through McSteen’s blinds, forcing the monitor to adjust. She smiles over her coffee mug, describing the experience of leading seven cohorts as akin to having 140 children. She knows each member by name and takes pride in their accomplishments.
“What brings me such joy is the opportunity to have the privilege to be involved in the lives of so many outstanding women,” McSteen says. Applications for the next cohort are open for any female-identifying freshmen until October 16th.
Part of fostering a brighter, more diverse and inclusive community is about taking the first step and encouraging others to do the same. The social shortfalls of today are not simple grievances to be itemized and worked through like the check-box history is often made out to be. Creating a better tomorrow is a continuous process that involves a lot of learning and determination.
Margaret Boyd, the first female graduate of Ohio University and namesake of the Boyd program, understood this, as does McSteen. “I believe in the future. It is the sharp minds and the motivated people who will make the change for the future.”