(Editor’s note: Each month since May, the WVU Magazine online features a woman who has made her career in science or related field at the University. They each have a different, fascinating story to tell about how they’re contributing to human knowledge. Visit the site to find monthly updates on A Year of Women in STEM science, technology, engineering and math.)
There also wasn’t talk about accommodating the women who were already there.
“My Ph.D. and my first child happened to arrive about the same time,” she said. “I defended my dissertation when I was seven-months pregnant and finalized it about the same time that my son was born.”
“You just learn how to juggle, and you learn how to manage your time well and prioritize things when you have so many balls in the air at the same time.”
Time is finite. Raising children takes time. Research takes time. Oberhauser knew this, but whatever the reason, predominantly male academia wasn’t giving the issue the same level of attention.
In 1990, she was the first woman hired in a tenure-track faculty position in the geography program at WVU. By this time, she was ready to have her second child, a daughter.
“It was very challenging because there were no accommodations for course reduction or reduced work load,” she said. “There were no accommodations for breast feeding, for time off, for any of that.”
Her job involved education of a different kind at times.
She learned that she had to ask for things and stand up for herself, even when she believed her request would not be granted. And she had to explain her personal situation to colleagues.
“Sometimes my male colleagues just didn’t get it, so I had to educate them about child care issues and the flexibility that’s often required if you have small kids, for example, and the need to postpone late faculty meetings and not be able to do certain things when you had other demands in your life,” she said.
Through her early child-rearing years, she relied on the support of friends at other universities who were facing the same issues. She sought out supportive colleagues. And she mentored her female graduate students to prepare them for what lay ahead.
You don’t have to look further than last summer’s magazine article from The Atlantic titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” to see that barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace are still a concern in even the most prestigious careers.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, the first woman to direct policy planning at the U.S. Department of State, described her experience with the clash between parenting and career and described the need for employers to recognize that raising children is an important, time-consuming task and then take action.
Oberhauser can attest to this struggle from her own experience and as director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at WVU.
“Oftentimes you hear about the biological clock and the tenure clock for early career female faculty members,” she said. “They’re going parallel, so in this situation it’s hard to raise a family if you’re also having to be extremely productive in your field.”
“The six-million dollar question is, ‘how are we going to overcome these challenges?’” she said. “There seems to be a glass ceiling with very few women who are full professors in the sciences.”
The aptly named WVU ADVANCE Center, part of a National Science Foundation grant, is searching for solutions to these problems, such as adjusting policies for parental leave following a new child and more flexible time requirements surrounding tenure.
So far, there are mentorship and funding programs to support female faculty in the earlier parts of their careers at the University, and Provost Michele Wheatly has formed a women’s leadership initiative to support women in leadership positions.
Oberhauser has noticed other changes since she began her academic career. There are certainly more women around the table, and men on the whole have become more involved in parenting. More of her male colleagues are taking parental leave at the birth of a child or taking an active role in child care, signs that benefits such as parental leave are not issues pertaining only to women.
In academia and beyond, there is still a wage gap between the sexes, she says. This is in part because there are fewer women in higher positions and women don’t seem to be rewarded and promoted as frequently as men are. And there seems to be barriers to women entering the sciences, something her office has focused on in recent years.
The geography of gender
When Oberhauser went to her job interview at WVU, she met Judith Gold Stitzel, the founder and former director of the then-named Center for Women’s Studies, and that helped to combine her love of geography with her interest in gender studies.
Oberhauser was a faculty associate at the center while she pursued her geography research, which led to her teaching a course on gender and geography.
For more than two decades, she’s studied rural development, gender differences and the comparison between developing and developed areas. She is interested in how women in sub-Saharan Africa fulfill domestic roles and work in micro-enterprises to earn a living.
She witnessed the importance of community in this society and how family encompasses distant relatives and neighbors. When she returns to Africa in the fall to continue her study of the women’s cooperative model, she’ll be working with some of her former students from Africa who are now professors.
Her work at the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies has had its own shifting landscape. The center has expanded beyond women’s studies as the new name reflects, and she’s hired a male faculty member, Brian Jara. Also, the center will soon offer a minor in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies, a growing academic area.
Oberhauser discovered geography through a love of travel and learning from a professor who made her excited about the field. She believes she’s had an unusual career path partly because of the behavior she witnessed during her college career that valued different perspectives in governance and decision-making.
When Clark University, where she got her master’s and Ph.D., selected graduate students to serve on committees, one male and one female student were chosen. It was an egalitarian tradition that helped to shape Oberhauser’s outlook and is reflected in her work at WVU.
She’s also sharing this way of life with her children. Her son and daughter are both in college and are likely to pursue graduate education.
“Hopefully through my own example, just my own life, they’re able to see what women can do,” she said. “And then when they go on and choose their partners and live their own careers, they can apply some of these messages.”
By Diana Mazzella
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