Setting boundaries, speaking up and trusting your voice as a woman in academia

The three deans of the Graduate College tell their stories

In March, we celebrate Women’s History Month, highlighting the achievements, contributions and lived experiences of the women we know. An important aspect to recognize while spotlighting the high-achieving and prolific women in your life is that every story is vastly different. Especially when looking at Women’s History Month through the lens of academia — reaching heights in one's respective field is a highly unique experience. While climbing the ranks, some women may face adversity, gender-based challenges and discrimination — and for some, it may be a simple road — nonetheless, their journeys are relevant and should be discussed.

In this conversation, we sat down with the three deans of the Graduate College: Vice Provost and Dean Libby Wentz, Associate Dean of Professional Development and Engagement Tamara Underiner and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Lisa Anderson to learn more about their career experiences while navigating academia as women. 

More than impostor syndrome

One popular topic in mainstream media is the concept of impostor syndrome, which can be defined as the belief that your abilities, skills and achievements are somehow fraudulent or not good enough and that you may be exposed for being deceptive about how you represent yourself.1 Although, this psychological experience may strike anyone at any point in their career trajectory, women are affected at a disproportionate rate, especially first-generation college students.2        

Vice Provost Wentz reflected on her struggles early in her career, “The greatest challenge I faced was self-doubt — and people I trusted reinforced that doubt.” At the time she was pursuing an advanced degree in mathematics, “Mathematics, especially at that time, was heavily male-dominated; I enjoyed the classes, I did well in my classes, and I consistently challenged myself to take the most challenging courses. However, when speaking to math professors, I received little support or encouragement.”

When entering any new field, getting little reinforcement that you belong can be a major detractor to building a career. “I asked what jobs a person could get with a bachelor’s of science in mathematics. One answer was, ‘as a woman, you might want to become a high school math teacher, a man would earn a PhD in math, but that isn’t probably for you,’” Dr. Wentz reflected.

The implications of an exchange like this can have lasting effects. If there are no (or few) examples of women's roles in an academic setting, many may settle for something unfulfilling or a job that is not a good fit, especially if they’re being steered in that direction by mentors. “I had no idea what it meant to earn a PhD, so I believed he was giving me the right advice. The advice came from respected and trustworthy men in mathematics, so I had no reason to doubt them – except for that nagging feeling that something wasn’t right. Yes, being a high school math teacher is a respectable career — but it didn’t seem to fit me,” said Dr. Wentz.

Thankfully, Vice Provost Wentz went on to earn her PhD in geography, earn a tenure track position here at ASU, and have a successful career in academia. But not everyone is so determined. What is the best course of action when faced with less-than-ideal feedback and advice from academics you feel like you can trust? How do women overcome these challenges when entering academia? For most, the answer may not be clear cut, but it centers on an inner knowing, “My strategy for success was that I kept turning and looking in different directions. I partially trusted that nagging feeling that the advice given to me wasn’t quite right. I just had to turn in a few directions (from math to geography) before I found my own path. I don’t have any regrets. You know what you’re interested in and your capabilities and you’re probably capable of more than you believe; my advice to anyone is to trust yourself,” said Dr. Wentz. 

Finding your inner voice

Tapping into your inner wealth of knowledge and discernment can positively affect many aspects of your life. From writing, to taking a test, to applying for a leadership position: you have to hone in on that internal dialogue that ultimately knows the next best move. Sometimes, that means quite literally trusting your voice. Tamara Underiner, associate dean of Academic Affairs and director of doctoral programs in Theatre and Performance of the Americas, learned the lesson about trusting oneself firsthand. “For me the single biggest challenge over the years has been finding my voice, literally. I once heard an NPR feature that to the male ear, the female voice is like background music that they find easy to tune out. Whether or not that is scientifically proven, when I heard that something certainly clicked for me in my lived experience at work and in relationships. It’s not that colleagues and loved ones were dismissive of my ideas — it was that they actually didn’t hear them!”

Experiences like this, where a woman goes unheard (literally or figuratively), can be detrimental to career confidence and success. All students deserve to have a voice and for their ideas to be acknowledged by peers and colleagues — and this can be especially true for women in academia. Combating the social structures that thrive on inequity is the charge of most women in education. 

Associate Dean Underiner reinforces the importance of pushing back when people try to make you feel invisible and less-than when speaking up or following your passion. “In the early years of my career when I’d serve on academic committees across campus, folks would seem to be taken aback by my PhD in drama. “Why do you need a PhD to act?” someone asked me once, in a tone that made me feel like I had no business being on campus at all. So, my advice would be to take advantage of every opportunity to use your unique and beautiful voice to share and advocate for the good work you’re doing. Who knows what opportunities for expanding it or collaborating with others may come from it?” 

It’s okay to say “No”

Even after you trust your instincts, overcome impostor syndrome and learn to elevate your voice, the challenges keep coming. Both associate deans talked about the extra work expected of women faculty. “We face additional struggles if we focus on the labor of female artists outside of academia, past and present, because they are still under-represented in textbooks, histories, research journals, stages, films, etc” said Dr. Underiner. 

“I very clearly remember my first semester on the tenure track. The man who was the department chair assigned me a class that met at 8 a.m. with only three students in it. I never saw him schedule anyone else for 8 a.m. classes,” said Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, Lisa Anderson. This anecdote highlights unfair treatment pertaining to time management and equity among other academics, which is all too common. It may take time to notice unjust patterns and courage to call attention to them. Developing the confidence to challenge inequitable practices is similar to other skills in the workplace in that it requires repetition and bravery.

What's more, this unequal division of labor has intersectional nuances that can be overlooked in the equity conversation. Dr. Anderson shines light on these factors, “It isn’t always easy to tell that what happens [in my career] is necessarily because of gender; sometimes, for me, it is because of being at an intersection of gender and race. The other thing that has been an issue more recently as a tenured professor is the way women, specifically, are asked to do more service, with an expectation that they will say yes. Men are asked less often to do as much service and their claim of it impinging on their time is taken seriously.” Dr. Anderson’s experience is common and contributes to the challenges women in higher education may face on their path.

Dr. Anderson offers this advice for women starting out in their career, “First, be protective of your time, and make sure that you are doing the things that you need to do for success before doing things that ‘don’t count.’ Second, seek out mentors from a variety of positions so that you can get a sense of your career trajectory and what things might become challenges.”

Fortunately, there is a positive in everything. These open and honest accounts of personal struggles and experiences help encourage and uplift the women seeking reassurance and guidance. From trusting your inner knowing to using your voice, to enforcing time-related boundaries — tools are available to carve out the way.

Women in academia are encouraged to pursue their interests, speak up and delegate responsibilities when needed, which ultimately contributes to a more equitable and fair academic and educational system.


Written by Dean Libby Wentz, Tamara Underiner and Lisa Anderson. Edited by Marjani Hawkins