At Rutgers-Camden, women leaders reflect on what it took

Participants in the Rutgers-Camden conference included the university's chancellor, Phoebe Haddon (left), and Gail Caputo, director of its women's and gender studies program.

Gloria Bonilla-Santiago said she knew that pursuing a career in academia was not going to be easy.

Bonilla-Santiago, director of the Community Leadership Center at Rutgers-Camden, said she began working at the university as an administrator, a job she said she did not like because it "didn't really allow her to make any changes." She decided to get her Ph.D. in sociology, and then became a member of Rutgers-Camden's faculty.

As an educator, she said, she faced obstacles rooted in covert prejudice and low expectations.

"I think women of color in society have to constantly, particularly in academia, prove themselves," she said.

Even so, she said, she broke ground by becoming the first Latina to get tenure at the school.

Bonilla-Santiago was one of four academic leaders involved in a panel discussion that opened the first Women's History Month Conference at Rutgers-Camden.

Before an audience of about 100, including students, faculty, and visitors, the four Rutgers-Camden colleagues talked about ways women can empower themselves.

The panel was moderated by Gail Caputo, director of Rutgers-Camden's women's and gender studies program, and included Phoebe Haddon, campus chancellor, and Kris Lindenmeyer, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences.

Lindenmeyer stressed the importance of seizing opportunities, and said she learned a lot about the concept while on her first job - at a McDonald's.

Lindenmeyer said she found out that "the guys working on the grill made more money than the girls working on the cash register."

"So I came in really early and made sure I learned to work the grill," Lindenmeyer recalled. "So when some guy didn't show up, I could start working the grill."

Haddon spoke of understanding implicit bias, which she described as the "undercover ways of thinking about the world that come out in decision-making."

Such bias relating to race and gender is often communicated unintentionally, but, Haddon said, it hurts just as much as intentional harm.

"You can best deal with that by being able to construct an understanding of what it means and what are the strategies you have available to counter those episodes," she said.

When asked by Caputo what they would say are the essential qualities and characteristics of a successful woman, the academic leaders gave similar answers.

"Determination," Haddon said.

"Resilience," Bonilla-Santiago added.

"Perspiration. Persistence," Lindenmeyer said. "Being willing to stick to it, even in the face of failure."

The conference also included presentations and workshops that explored topics such as infertility, black masculinity, and female identity in the media.

One presentation, titled "My Life as a Teen Feminist," featured six high school students from the Alice Paul Institute's Girls Advisory Council.

The students discussed issues important to them, such as ending wage gaps between women and men, and paying more attention to the problem of rape on college campuses.

The panel called for a better societal understanding of feminism, which aims to help women achieve equality with men, not make women better than men.

One student, Deisha Brahma, 16, of Burlington Township High School, the daughter of Indian immigrants, recounted the frustration she feels when people tell her she's "really accomplished for where she came from."

She promoted the importance of breaking down stereotypes.

"You're not your skin color. You're not your gender. You're not what people perceive you as," Brahma said.

Caputo said she hoped the conference would become an annual event.