Around Campus

UAAW recognizes five who are improving conditions for women at Carolina

The annual award recognizes people on campus who have elevated the status of women, helped improve campus policies, promoted recruitment, retention and upward mobility of women and participated in professional development or mentorship for women.

From right to left: Clare Counihan, program coordinator for faculty and staff at the Carolina Women’s Center; Interim Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz; Grace Langley; Jennifer Fulton; DeVetta Holman Copeland; Leah Bowers; Sarah Birken; and Gloria Thomas, director of the Carolina Women’s Center.
From right to left: Clare Counihan, program coordinator for faculty and staff at the Carolina Women’s Center; Interim Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz; Grace Langley; Jennifer Fulton; DeVetta Holman Copeland; Leah Bowers; Sarah Birken; and Gloria Thomas, director of the Carolina Women’s Center. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The University honored five Carolina women with the University Award for the Advancement of Women at a March 19 ceremony.

The award recognizes people on campus who have elevated the status of women, helped improve campus policies, promoted recruitment, retention and upward mobility of women and participated in professional development or mentorship for women. The honorees receive $5,000 (faculty and staff) or $2,500 (graduate and undergraduate students). Two women are sharing the graduate student award this year.

This year’s recipients are:

Sarah Birken
Member on the Committee on the Status of Women and co-host of “AcaDames” podcast

Dr. Sarah Birken is an assistant professor at the Gillings School of Global Public Health. She’s also an avid runner, mentor, wife and mother of two children. Fitting all this into her own life inspired her to be active in the Committee on the Status of Women, uncover the “hidden curriculum” of academia for other women researchers and co-host the “AcaDames” podcast to discuss issues like salaries, tenure, job security and being a mother in academia. The podcast has 1,500 downloads after only three episodes. Fixed-term faculty like Birken are predominantly women, she said, often because “the most intense period of an academic’s career coincides with the most intense period of a woman’s life.” Those who drop out or slow down for personal reasons, like she did, forgo tenure-track positions, she said. While she has strong support from her department chair, fixed-term faculty in general are “second in line” and vulnerable because they work on short contracts at the will of their department chairs or deans. “They [may be] more guarded in what they say and what they research because they don’t have the security of tenure.”

DeVetta Holman Copeland
Founder of Sister Talk

Every Friday during the semester, women students convene for Sister Talk, even without being reminded to come. DeVetta Holman Copeland (aka “Dr. D”) leads the group she founded, in what she calls “real talk,” or authentic dialogue — the kind that moms have with daughters. “That talk that is so real, it allows women to self-reflect, think critically, know their ‘why,’ understand their path forward and create a penchant for reaching back.” She realized the need for a group such as this when, as a counselor to mostly women undergraduates, she began to see patterns in their experiences. “How about turning this into a learning experience where they could actually listen, see, build a sisterhood, and know that they are not on an island alone?” In addition to her job as resiliency and student support programs coordinator in Student Wellness, this C. Knox Massey Award winner, also volunteers time as a mentor to Carolina Covenant students and is active in several campus organizations. She strongly believes that she is not just helping students navigate their college years. It’s so much bigger than that, she said. “With these women, my goal is to nurture the next generation of leaders.”

Leah Bowers & Jennifer Fulton
President and vice president of Allies for Minorities and Women in Science and Engineering

Leah Bowers, a graduate student in chemistry, liked the idea behind Women in Science in Engineering — women supporting other women in a male-dominated area of academia. But Bowers quickly realized, “We can do more to foster an inclusive environment.” Wanting to expand the group to include men and broaden its scope to include other minorities “to show that these issues were affecting everyone,” she found a fellow chemistry graduate student who shared her vision. Together Bowers and Jennifer Fulton re-shaped Allies for Minorities and Women in Science and Engineering “to harness the power WISE had accrued to affect positive change,” Bowers said.

Like good researchers, they began with data, administering a climate survey originally developed by the biology department to their colleagues in the chemistry and physics departments. Fulton has since collaborated with students and faculty to distribute the survey in five additional departments. Based on the survey results, AM_WISE launched several key initiatives: mentorship training for all incoming tenure-track chemistry faculty, a mentee training series for graduate students and post-docs, a town hall where students and post-docs from the chemistry, physics and biology departments were able to share their thoughts. When faculty expressed concern about how they were supposed to handle reports of sexual harassment, AM_WISE and the faculty Diversity Committee began developing a step-by-step instruction manual with a “clear line of response,” Fulton said. “We are focused on practical change.”

When they first came to the department, Bowers and Fulton felt that discussing their diverse passions and interests in the lab was frowned upon. Bowers also felt isolated because there weren’t many other researchers who looked like her. Now they work to ensure all underrepresented groups are strongly supported at work and free to explore both traditional and non-traditional career paths. Bowers intends to pursue the freelance creation of illustrations for STEM researchers who need them for grant proposals, academic presentations and press conferences. In the future, she wants to use her art in conjunction with science to help the public “understand and trust” science. Fulton hopes to continue her career as a synthetic organic chemist in industry.

Grace Langley
Women Engaged in Learning and Leadership Residential Learning Program

Grace Langley insists she is a student first, but she is involved in so many gender equity projects on and off campus that you wonder how the senior majoring in psychology and sociology and minoring in women’s and gender studies fits in her classes. She lives on campus in the Women Engaged in Learning and Leadership residential learning program and, as a resident adviser, leads the students in that community in discussions and programming related to diversity and gender equity. As advocacy co-chair of Carolina Advocates for Gender Equity, Langley visited several local restaurants checking for gender-neutral bathrooms and signage so that the locations can be included on a map of safe spaces. As interim coordinator for Feminism for All, which coordinates and encourages sharing among its 19 campus partner organizations, she is combating what she sees as the University’s biggest challenge in this area: awareness. “A lot of people don’t know about these feminist and women’s organizations on campus. They don’t know how to access them,” she said. “And once they do, it’s hard to maintain that engagement.” This summer, she will be a Moxie Scholar at a Triangle-based women’s organization or municipality. Then it’s on to law school.