Research & Action Spring/Summer 2009

Q&A with Susan McGee Bailey

Research & Action Report, Spring/Summer 2009

Susan McGee Bailey, Ph.D. has served as executive director of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) since 1985. She was the principal author of the widely cited 1992 AAUW report, How Schools Shortchange Girls.

How were you introduced to the work of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW), and what brought you here?

As a Wellesley graduate, I’d heard about the Centers since their founding in 1974—it was the Center for Research on Women back then. I had always felt the Centers’ work was the kind of thing that Wellesley should be doing. Nobody else was looking at issues from the perspectives of women in the way that the Wellesley Centers were; and I believe that when you present people with reliable, reputable research about a problem, you take a giant step toward convincing them that it needs to be addressed. I had used some of the Centers’ materials in my own work in Washington, DC. So when I was invited to apply for the job of executive director and was offered the position, I was delighted.

What makes WCW unique?

Several things… we were the first and are still the largest research center in the country focusing on women’s perspectives and experiences. Furthermore, it’s rare for an undergraduate college to have a separate research center and at the same time, compared to university-based research centers, we’re quite large, with an annual budget of $7-$7.5 million dollars. Of course, growth for its own sake has no particular value. But growth because we’re asking important questions and addressing pressing needs is significant. We also have a strong grant funding record.

What accounts for these successes?

I think the fact that we’ve built a strong reputation is key. This flows from superb staff throughout the Centers. We not only have top-notch researchers and innovative programmatic and training staff, we have excellent administrative staff—all committed to our goals and mission. We’re doing sound, scholarly work that has helped to shape public discussion and we’ve demonstrated that relevant research and innovative pilot projects can help power social change.

It’s important to understand our two-part mission. One role is to ask thoughtful questions related to women’s lives and to undertake solid research that grows from these questions. The other is to make sure that our findings reach a large public audience so they can affect public policy and practices. WCW researchers have testified in state and federal legislative settings and we have distributed our work widely. We are more activist- and policy-change oriented than most university-based researchers. Of course, we do publish in scholarly journals, but we also have a clear focus on action. Several of our projects incorporate important components of curriculum development and training, another way of making sure that the work reaches the general public and influences people, policy, and practice.

Let’s go back. Thirty-five years ago, why did Wellesley College decide it needed a center for research on women’s issues?

The spirit of the Centers goes all the way back to the College’s founding in 1870. Founder Henry Durant said that the purpose of higher education for women was “revolt against the slavery in which women are held by the customs of society.” Wellesley College was founded to empower young women to lead this “revolt.”

A century later, in the early 1970s, the College grappled with the idea of admitting men. The faculty voted “yes,” but the trustees said “no.” Since it was going to remain a women’s college, President Barbara Newell and Dean Alice Ilchman decided it was appropriate for Wellesley to have a center that would look at issues of importance to all women in a time of rapid social change. In 1974, at the establishment of the Center for Research on Women, President Newell declared that its purpose was to “make an historically women’s college really meet the challenge of the women’s movement of the 1970s.”

During the 35 years since then, what would you say have been WCW’s main contributions to the achievements of the women’s movement?

Women have made a great deal of progress in almost every arena. However, we have not achieved the goals or the gains envisioned in the optimistic mood of many feminists in the late 1960s and 70s.

One area where the Centers have made a major difference is afterschool care and early child care. We were the first in the country to respond with research to the urgent need for afterschool care for children, and for over three decades we’ve continued to work on both early child care and care for school-age kids. In fact, in regard to out-of-school time, it’s fair to say that our research, policy development, and training programs have set the standards and shaped many of the local, state, and federal policies that are now in effect.

The balance of work with family life has always been important issue for the women’s movement and for the Centers. The work on early child care and after-school is one way we address these issues, but we’ve also led the way in examining the stresses associated with both women’s and men’s roles at home and in the workplace. Work and family are not women’s issues, they are men’s and women’s’ issues.

Since our earliest years we’ve helped raise awareness and shape the public dialogue on gender equitable education. We have maintained a steady focus on the underrepresentation of girls and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—subjects now known as STEM. One of the very first projects here, in 1975, was a project on women and math headed by Alice Shaffer, a math professor at Wellesley College; today one of our newest projects is funded by the National Science Foundation and focuses on girls and STEM. How Schools Shortchange Girls">How Schools Shortchange Girls, published in 1992, is credited with influencing federal legislation on programs for girls in science and math and inspiring community-based programs in these fields for girls across the country.

Other school-related problems we’ve focused on include peer sexual harassment, teasing, and bullying. Our research has raised public awareness on these serious issues in schools not only in the U.S. but around the world.

Diversity is a critical aspect of educational equity that we’ve done a lot of work on. You can’t look at questions of gender without also considering race, class, and sexual orientation—all classifications by which people are judged and compartmentalized and held down. Under the leadership of Peggy McIntosh, we pioneered work on white privilege. Peggy and the training program she directs, the National SEED [Seeking Educational Equity & Diversity] Project, have worked on diversity issues with tens of thousands of teachers across the nation and in 11 other countries.

We’ve also worked to improve the wellbeing of young children and adolescents. Our Open Circle program helps promote the social, emotional, and academic development of children through supportive, safe, and respectful learning communities in elementary school. And our work through the Stone Primary Prevention Initiatives program focuses on research and evaluation designed to prevent the onset of mental health concerns in children and adolescents.

Work on women’s psychological growth and development has been another hallmark of the Centers. Jean Baker Miller and her colleagues looked at the importance of relationships and connections and developed Relational-Cultural Theory. Their work turned many of the traditional assumptions of psychology upside down, demonstrating that women are not “too codependent,” not “too interdependent,” but that relational tendencies are a strength women bring to relationships that all people need—a model for men as well as women. The Jean Baker Miller Training Institute is continuing and expanding this work.

Our work on women’s leadership has taken a variety of forms—for example, identifying factors that help women succeed and organizational structures that support or hinder women’s growth. Our report on Critical Mass on Corporate Boards identified that at least three women were needed on a corporate board in order for the board to truly benefit from their contributions and perspectives. Our leadership institutes for workers in after-school care, which we held for many years, were designed to strengthen this essential vocation and to empower its practitioners, who are often undervalued and underpaid. And of course, all our work for gender equitable education is trying to ensure that young girls can prepare for leadership through the freedom and encouragement to speak up and speak out, and feel confident and comfortable doing so.

Right here at the Centers, we’re getting some very impressive data regarding the young women who’ve come for a year or two of our post-doctoral training program and then gone on to do some wonderful things. They’re demonstrating a kind of “thought leadership” that’s influencing their academic fields and, in some cases, public policy programs. They’re young, but my bet is that some of them are going to move to the top of their fields.

Clearly, lots of progress has been made. Which issues do you see as most pressing now—for the Centers, and for the women’s movement?

I am unhappy to say that many of the concerns we’ve worked on for the last 35 years remain pressing issues. In some ways, we’ve lopped off the easy pieces… for the most part it’s no longer a question of equal access for women and girls in terms of law. But what happens once you’ve gotten access to an educational program or an employment opportunity? Barriers, sometimes subtle, remain and biases linger.

Meanwhile, a woman still earns only 78 cents to a man’s dollar and the average minority woman is paid little more than half of what the average white male receives. Single mothers are especially vulnerable to job loss, and victims of domestic violence show lower employment rates than other women. So improving the economic security of women and families remains a major concern.

In terms of work/family balance and the equal sharing of responsibilities for daily living, we still have a long way to go. Too often things like child care are assumed to be the responsibility of the individual when solutions lie in community wide responses. Gender-role stereotypes are still strong, even if slightly less pervasive, and equity in education has not yet been achieved. This must be a major concern for all of us who care about the future of our nation.

Unfortunately, gender violence, in all aspects of the lives of women and girls, remains a critical barrier, not only to physical and psychological health, but to employment and education. Our work on family violence in the U.S. military led to the new policies and programs on prevention and intervention for the Navy, and in 2004 we held an international conference on understanding violence against women. Continued work on the causes, consequences, and prevention of gender-based violence is urgently needed, not only in the U.S. but around the world.

What initiatives do you see the Centers undertaking?

We’ll continue to work on the matters of social policy, economic security, and the educational concerns we have focused on since our founding, including those I’ve just mentioned.

We’ll be doing more international work. We’ve built strong relationships with the U.S. Department of State, agencies of the U.N., nongovernmental organizations, and legal advocates across the globe. We’re not trying to become an international research center in a traditional sense, but rather we are and will continue to work as part of the global women’s movement. We want to make sure that our work in the U.S. is informed by work going on in other parts of the world, and at the same time be helpful to women in other countries by sharing what we’ve learned here.

We’re reaching beyond our present concentration of work with women leaders across Asia to do more in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia, pursuing the question of women’s human rights in a way that’s focused and intellectually sound.

The framing of many women’s issues as human rights issues is a relatively new and critically important framework. Human rights are broader than civil and political rights. Our programs using law and policy-making to support the rights and the welfare of women and children are important and very exciting for all of us!

An essential part is women’s leadership. I believe that the only way some of the changes that need to happen will happen is with women leading the way.

What about funding for these new initiatives?

It’s very much needed. Despite the fact that we’ve been quite successful in getting some of our international work going, it’s still a struggle to keep it funded. We need people with expertise in Africa and Latin America so that we can successfully extend significant work in these areas. We also need the infrastructure, the administrative support for this work. That kind of support is especially important as we do more internationally, because all sorts of issues such as travel, visas, and transferring funds are more complex and expensive.

We also need an economist who can bring the perspectives and insights of this field to our research. New work and investments in scholars such as an economist often require ‘seed’ funding. Our track record is strong in this respect. For example, 19 years ago when issues of sexual harassment in schools were barely acknowledged, we appealed to our individual donors for funds to help us bring Nan Stein, one of the few in the country with expertise in this area, to the Centers to investigate the ways these issues played out in classrooms. The generous support of WCW friends provided initial start up funds for her research. Almost 20 years later Nan is still pursuing issues of gender violence and bullying in schools; work that has been funded by grants from private and governmental programs for many years.

The international work of Rangita de Sliva-de Alwis is another, more recent, example. Rangita came to WCW three years ago with only partial funding, but with many innovative and exciting projects in mind. Because we had a generous Keon International Understanding Fund to draw on, we were able to supplement Rangita’s salary for the first year or so until she, too, was able to fund her work from outside sources. An initial investment in cutting-edge work is critical, once the work is started and the findings disseminated, major funding can be secured by writing proposals to governmental agencies and private foundations.

You have an ambitious anniversary goal of raising $3.5 million to pursue initiatives like those you’ve described. In this economically difficult time, why should people give to WCW?

It’s always a hard sell to generate funding for research and policy action projects, because you don’t see immediate results. When you fund hungry children or provide protection and support for battered women, you’re touching someone’s life directly and making an immediate difference. This work is important, but it is a bandage; you’re solving an immediate problem, but you’re not necessarily preventing its reoccurrence. Solid research and good action programs can help us get at the heart of problems and better understand them. This knowledge and insight can empower advocates, activists and policymakers to take action—action that addresses root causes and prevents rather than merely treats problems.

No matter how tight the economic times or how difficult it is to raise money, I believe that it’s never been more important to do this work. There is more awareness, more public discussion, and more hope for social change today than there has been in some time. We all need to invest our money wisely, and an investment in the kinds of work we do here is an investment that will both save money in the long term and make a positive difference in many, many lives. Our work has never been more relevant or more needed. We need to seize these new opportunities.