LEGACIES - Utah Women's Walk

Legacies - Dr. Susan Madsen

Episode Summary

“Legacies” a podcast dedicated to preserving the inspiring stories and wisdom of Utah women. Dr. Madsen is a professor at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership project, an initiative focused on strengthening the impact of Utah girls and women. I spoke with her in August of last year.

Episode Notes

“Legacies,” a podcast by Utah Women’s Walk

Season 1, Episode 1: Susan Madsen

For the complete interview, click here.

Episode Transcription

“Legacies,” a podcast by Utah Women’s Walk

Season 1, Episode 1: Susan Madsen

For the complete interview, click here.


MW: Utah is known for its high quality of life, the best skiing in the country and beautiful landscapes, including five national parks. In 2020 it ranked in the top 20% of the nation in family and social-related issues. We have the most families with kids in the nation and have the lowest divorce rate

Women in Utah work hard behind the scenes to support community life and families. But on  paper, just looking at the numbers, Utah does not seem to be a great place for an American woman to live. Its rates for female education and employment are low. Its rates of domestic violence are heartbreakingly high. The numbers of women serving in elected office are lower than in many other states.  But Dr. Susan Madsen has dedicated her career to changing that.

SM: …Girls and women, unlike boys and men, we do not see ourselves as the leaders. We are not generally socialized from a young age—and I see this even more in Utah—to see ourselves as leaders. It’s so important that we see ourselves—I mean we don’t have a lot of women in high positions. We don’t have these role models out there often

MW: I’m Michele Welch and this is “Legacies” a podcast dedicated to preserving the inspiring stories and wisdom of Utah women. Dr. Madsen is a professor at Utah State University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership project, an initiative focused on strengthening the impact of Utah girls and women. I spoke with her in August of last year. (Intro music ends)

(Pause for transition)

MW: How did you get started down this path of studying female education and leadership in Utah?

SM: Well, I’ve been at Utah Valley University for eighteen years, and about XX years ago is when I actually started the Utah Women in Education project, back then, at the request of the commissioner of higher education and the governor’s office, to really explore why more women were not going and graduating from college. And it was supposed to be a one-year project, and it is eleven years later, and we are still working on it in the form of the Utah Women in Leadership Project.

I switched universities actually, because Utah State approached me, a few times through the years, but this past year they approached me and really wanted me as a professor to come up and teach and do those things, but I really felt that the mission of Utah State University was so connected to what I was doing with the Utah Women in Leadership Project. They are a land grant university, which means they have extension offices and regional campuses all around Utah. And one of my deep desires, Michele, was to continue to influence women along the Wasatch front, but also really find ways to support—through events, or research, or resources—women [that are] also in rural areas and regions around the state. So that is the main reason that I transitioned to Utah State University, so that I could get increased support in terms of really extending the reach of the Utah Women in Leadership Project. And we are still going to have a strong partnership with the Woodbury School of Business and other areas at Utah Valley University. And I still am doing my global work. I know that you know about that too. I really am passionate about leading social change in the state of Utah and doing that through research, you know, I am a scholar and a researcher, but also, when I can, making that impact in different ways throughout the United States and in other countries as well.

MW: So ten years ago it was called, The Utah Women in Education Project, and then it transitioned. Tell me about that transition.

SM: When women are engaged and more educated, the research has found that they will use their voices more. They will have more confidence. Education actually gives women, and men I should say, more confidence and self-esteem in different ways.

So, I feel now, with the Utah Women in Leadership Project, that it encompasses the education component as well as the leadership. Occasionally, Michele, people will ask me, What do some of your reports—how do they relate to leadership? Because we have reports on domestic violence, and poverty, and even cosmetic surgery in Utah Women, those kinds of things. What does that have to do with leadership? I have to say that I am very strongly opinionated about this because what we have found, and what the research tells us, is that anything that impacts a women’s confidence and her voice, impacts leadership. If she is worried about feeding her children, or if she is recovering from some kind of assault, then she will not be able to have the voice that she could have if she had the support needed for her to really thrive, not just hang in there, not just strive, but actually thrive.

MW: As you listen to stories of Utah women, how does it impact your research or your thinking? Are stories important?

SM: Absolutely. There is quite a bit of research on how women are impacted through stories actually. And some within the area of women’s leadership. One thing I will say though, Michele, that is really important, is that girls and women, unlike boys and men, we do not see ourselves as the leaders. We are not generally socialized from a young age—and I see this even more in Utah—to see ourselves as leaders. It’s so important that we see ourselves—I mean we don’t have a lot of women in high positions. We don’t have these role models out there often. So if a girl doesn’t see anyone else serving in public office, she not going to think to herself, as she is growing up, that I want to prepare to run for office.

So what stories do, especially your stories, whether from history or current stories, whether they lead in their homes or their communities, or are leaders in business, or in higher education, or principals, or superintendents, or whatever it is. When girls and young women hear those stories, they can see themselves. They can connect with who they are. Even if it’s just an element. They are like, “Oh, I like that too! She liked music. I like that too.” A piece of identity. That is the key to me. For them to hear even one thing in a story, from a women’s past or present moment, where they say, “I can do that too. I can get my education. I can see myself actually leading and influencing, and maybe I should aspire to lead.”

MW: In 2019 you did keynotes in United Arab Emirates, the UK, Lithuania, Germany, and Denmark. I’m interested in, what did you speak about? And any meaningful experiences that you have had outside of the United States.

SM: I love meeting women from all different countries. In fact, every year I go, except for this year, every year I go to Hawaii and do a two-day program for the East West Center, for sixteen women from sixteen Asia Pacific Countries. And every year—so I’ve done this for ten years—and so I have these women from all different cultures, and it’s so interesting to learn about the differences. But, Michele, one of the coolest things I remember every year, when I’ve met there, and as I hear accents from all of these different countries, is how united women can be, how many things are so similar within our hearts and within our struggles. So I love that. Yes, last year I presented in the president’s palace in Lithuania and some other key areas in different countries. And oftentimes I switch each year with what I speak about, but I’ve been for the last year really focusing on some research around women’s deep identity and also our calling and purpose.

So let me mention that second one, because I speak about that often. What is so fascinating to me is the research around women’s calling and purpose. So the research says that when women, compared to men, when women feel called or feel a purpose to step forward and lead, 30 percent to 40 percent, women more than men, will step forward. So women need that call. We need that purpose. So a calling could be religious or not religious, but I’ve been speaking a lot about that and also about identity.

MW: How do you understand your own calling?

SM: About twelve years ago—right before I took on this project, I had accomplished my big checklist of, you know, on strengths finder, I am an achiever. That is number one. (laughs) I love lists. All of us are different, and I’ve accepted who I am. So I had a list of, “I want this many publications, and I want this, really around my scholarship.” And I had pretty much hit all of those. I felt in my heart that I wanted to still publish, but this was not everything. It’s not fulfilling this need within my soul. And I will tell you, I’m a religious person. I am a spiritual person, and I have always wanted to do what God wanted me to do. And in that year as I was wrestling with—it took me a whole year, and I was wrestling back and forth with which direction should I go? People were encouraging me to run for office, or to go into more of a leadership with higher education, but I just wasn’t feeling good about that.

I have to say, this was a spiritual experience, but I was on a direct flight from Paris to Salt Lake. Those are long flights. I don’t know if you have been on one of those before, but I had my journal. I had different information on different choices that I could make. I had my Latter-day Saint scriptures. I had everything that I wanted. And I tell you, and I’ll get a little teary eyed, but about three or four hours into that trip, when I was journaling, it was like I was close to heaven. I was up there in the sky. I had about four hours of pure revelation come to me. When I stepped off the plane, I knew that I needed to put a lot of my efforts moving forward into strengthening the impact of Utah girls and women. And from that moment that I stepped off—my husband picked me up that time from the airport—and I told him what had happened, and I have not looked back. It feels like where I am needed. It feels like where my head, my intellect, where my heart, and where my hands can make the most difference in this world.

MW: I’ve been listening to your podcast, the Utah Women in Leadership Podcast, and one episode I really appreciated was about how critical confidence is for women. What does your research show there?

The research actually says that boys and girls are fairly equal in confidence levels until they hit puberty, which has been ten to thirteen, but puberty is hitting some girls even by eight now. And after that happens, there really is a separation in confidence between boys and girls and the socialization that comes into play

So confidence is really about three things. It’s about genetics, because there are differences in hormones and neurotransmitters, but it’s about socialization and your upbringing. So when you get into elementary school, and all the way up, there really is a difference in the way that girls and boys are treated. The third area—so we say genetics, socialization, and then choice. A lot of girls, when they are growing up, don’t know that they have a choice to be more confident, unless they have some really good people, men and women, that impact them and help them increase that confidence.

So why it’s so important, is that we need to every day, but confidence breads confidence. So if we, as girls, and as women, we are socialized and part of our hormones play in, that we don’t like failure, so we don’t want to try. We don’t take as many risks, but what we know is that we don’t get confidence unless we step forward, unless we act. We can’t just sit around and think. Self-esteem can kind of be like that, right? But we don’t get confidence unless we do something. If we want to be better at public speaking, we have to do public speaking. But then we open ourselves up as women to more failure. Does that make sense?

MW: Yes.

SM: So the best thing, I’ll just tell you as I wrap up this question. One of the best things that women can do to increase their confidence is to increase their self-compassion. People may think, what is she talking about? But the more that we are okay with saying, “I tried.” I did the best I can. I’m forgiving myself if I wasn’t, “perfect”, the more confidence she will actually get. So it’s fascinating to look at the literature on that. It’s fun to work with girls and women and see that, those light bulbs go off, and see them try things and be okay with, “Oh, that didn’t go so well, that’s okay. I don’t have to be perfect.” As you know, Michele, the research is quite clear, that women, much more than men, are perfectionistic. And that actually is a really dangerous thing for confidence.

MW: Tell me the ways that you see—I mean you have been doing this for over a decade now—tell me the ways in which you have seen Utah women improve. Hopefully there are a few areas that we are getting better at. What are those areas? And how are we doing well?

SM: So for many of our reports now, we have done a three or four year update. And we have seen some slight progress in certain areas. For instance, women in politics, there has been some slight increases in women in politics. And when you look at the state legislature, even one more woman makes a big difference in terms of the percentage. We still need more, but we have seen some energy moving forward. We don’t have an update from this last election, but I believe there are more women on city councils. We will have to do another report, so I think there is some great energy.

We found a slight increase in women serving on state boards and commissions. And actually, the state government, after our first report, the state government, three or four years ago, really tried to make it a priority to think about diversity more, and so we did see that increase. We still need more, but we saw that increase. There were a few that stayed about even in three or four years of research, but the one that went down was women on boards and in top CEO positions within business. That one actually went backwards a little bit. I believe that one is more because of more tech companies moving into Utah, which we love on one hand, but on the other hand, women in Utah—you see this nationally and globally—but women in Utah tend to really stay within more traditionally areas than women more than even women outside of Utah and around the world. So you don’t see as many women, even as in other states, in tech companies and so forth.

So I do believe that we are making some progress. The conversation has changed in the last decade, I have to say. And I do think my team and I can take some credit for that. When you have good data, when you have research, when you have reports to say how it is, it helps, so that you are not just talking in the air with these fuzzy numbers. So I think we have made some slight progress. We have more work to do, but things are moving and the conversation, Michele, even in the last year, year and a half, I have had way more men come and talk to me about, how can I better support women. Give me tools. Help me understand what I can do better. That’s a good sign.

MW: What would be your best advice for Utah women? If you could sit down—and you do sit down with hundreds and thousands of them—but what would you say?

SM: This will not surprise you Michele, but always the first thing I do is—whether people contact me and want advice on starting businesses or whatever it is, running for office—The first thing I say is, tell me about your college education. Where are you at?  Because the research is—and that is where I really started eleven years ago—and I did so much reading and research on the value of degrees and certificates. You can start with certificates, but an associate degree is a bit better, and you get more benefits. And then a bachelor’s degree is better than that, and then higher education. So I would think that there are hundreds of women in the state of Utah, who have gone back to college because I have really encouraged them to do so. So that is my number one.

And then two, often these days, I am trying to have women really acknowledge and see their gifts, and their talents, and their strengths. What I have found in Utah, more than other places, is that women are not embracing and acknowledging their gifts and strengths. They are socialized often to, and I’m putting my fingers up in quote marks, to be humble. But humility just means being teachable. It doesn’t mean you have to be small. Many women think that if I say what are my strengths then I’m looking cocky, kind of like they have seen boys and men do.

And I just gave this speech recently, that when you know with confidence, your gifts, and your talents, and your strengths, you actually can serve God in better ways, or you can serve society in better ways. Offering your gifts and talents to others is not cocky, and it’s not a lack of humility. You can be confident and humble at the same time. But oftentimes, women don’t get that. So when I am doing workshops, I have women actually talk about their gifts, or have someone tell them what they see their strengths [are], and have women just say, Thank you, and close their mouths. Because we are tempted to say, But, no, it’s not. But we just need to gracefully say, Thank you, and then stop.  So that is something that we have to work with women on. Those are a few of the things that I am interested in, and that I am concerned about and worried about. 

MW: I love that advice. Get as much education as possible, right? Go as high as you can, and as far as you can, and then to embrace your gifts and acknowledge your gifts.

SM: Thank you so much, and I have to say that I’ve gotten to know some of your students through the years and your impact on them has just been remarkable. One my one. Class by class. When you look into women’s stories, which you have had a passion about, and helped each of them start looking into the stories and interviewing people, that changes them, but that also changes the women who are interviewed, right?

MW: That’s right. Exactly

You’ve talked about this so much already, but all of us have a desire to leave a legacy, and we want to matter. We want to make a difference. We have good intentions, but what I would like to know is, what would you hope to be remembered for?

SM: You know, my life mission is what this work is, in terms of my professional and service for in the community, is to strengthen the impact of other people, especially girls and women. So I think that my legacy—and of course I want to be known as someone who raised four good kids, and grandkids, and so forth, as most people do—but my hope is that my legacy would be people, after I’m gone would say, She really made a difference. She changed things for girls and women. Whether that is helping change things for sexual assault like we just talked about, or helping people gain their confidence, or helping women decide to go back to college, that their lives are better because I made those choices, that their family’s lives are better. And that Utah is a better place because of that.

MW: Thank you Susan. We will talk to you again soon. I appreciate you being on today.