Professor Jaime Harker
Professor Jaime Harker

We talk about women’s leadership roles in The Inform[H]er: how to increase the number of female politicians, how traditional gender roles can hamper progress and, frankly, what it takes to step up and lead. Last month, a women’s leadership summit held at Ole Miss took a different tone.

Their premise? You’re probably already leading in some way — at work, civic group, church or elsewhere — but how can we better engage and support each other in those roles? The hope? Supporting women in all walks of leadership will eventually lead to those bigger roles and bring more women to decision-making tables.   

Ole Miss’ Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies put on the summit last month, and in the midst of Gov. Tate Reeves bemoaning gender studies as a “West Coast” idea, the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage and my perennial quest to uplift women leaders across the state, I talked with Isom Center director, Jaime Harker, about the summit and how these conversations can evolve to better support women, and in turn, their community.


Mississippi Today:The summit and panels felt pretty organic and conversational, compared to some academic conferences and panels that tend to talk “at” folks in the audience, can you talk about the day’s design?

Professor Jaime Harker: I will say this, the Isom Center is coming up on our 40th anniversary but they (Ole Miss) never really invested in the center in the ways that most universities did, where you had a separate academic unit and a separate women’s center outreach unit — unlike most other universities that really evolve those in bigger ways, we still are a center that has both academic and outreach. We don’t really have a lot of faculty — there’s a lot of bad things about that, but the good thing is that we don’t divide up our academic from our outreach work — we see those as holistic.

So we, all of us in the office are both creating classes and creating academic programs, but we’re also partnering with community organizations and doing cultural events. We organize Pride Week and the pride parade in Oxford every year. We do Sarah Fest, which is an arts and music festival that features women and LGBTQ folks. We’re constantly doing partnerships, so we are bridging those divides a lot in the work we do already, and we have relationships with people in the community and have worked hard to have them. I think that probably showed. They didn’t just come as a result of this event — because we had those relationships and we worked with folks, we were able to draw on them and extend them for this summit in a way that I think was really helpful.

Mississippi Today: Can you speak to why these types of events are important? I notice there’s this contradiction — even though women have always been more civically engaged when it comes to the daily life, but less represented in government and board rooms, and everywhere else. Even though 2018 had record number of women elected, there is this trend of lacking support, which tells me that traditional gender roles are still predominant. Despite more gender equity and more advancement of women leadership, we’re asked/want to do more with less — what role can groups like Sarah Isom and centers like this play in helping to even the playing field? 

Professor Jaime Harker: That’s a good question and one center can never solve that problem. We are in a particular situation because we are at a nonprofit university, we can’t weigh in partisan ways in any of this. We’re really aware that we want to construct conversations, but we have to make sure that we are not perceived as doing — but also not privileging a particular perspective when it comes to who you vote for or what party.

I think there’s a role for that in the community, it’s just not one that we can play. So I think that probably affects what we’re doing, but I also think that we really try to enact what we see as feminist leadership and that means — this came up in the leadership panel — you can get a lot done when you don’t care who gets credit. We really see ourselves as a catalyst for a lot of conversations — we think of ourselves as an incubator.

We were pleasantly surprised that people were already saying, “So, this is going to be an annual event?” And we thought, oh well we weren’t necessarily thinking it was going to be an annual event but it clearly tapped into something. People really valued the chance to talk and to have these broader conversations.

Mississippi Today: What was your favorite part of the day?

Professor Jaime Harker: I have to say, the keynote was so delightful that I couldn’t stop smiling (editor’s note: the keynote was with Nadia Theodore, Canada’s consul genera to the Southeast, and I couldn’t stop smiling either). We knew she was interesting and smart, but she was also so personable and so genuine — and delighted to be there. I felt like just her very presence there gave people a vision of possibility in terms of political engagement and civic activism that they may not have thought of before. When she said, “This is what a diplomat looks like,” I just loved that. She was just beaming, charming, daughter of immigrants, but loves engaging with these folks and it was really lovely to see that. I felt like she set the tone for the rest of the day. 

One of my favorite parts was when she talked about the way her mother, who you would see as a fairly traditional woman, was the one who trained her to be a diplomat. I think that’s true for most people there — the ways that these things that don’t seem political at all, actually lay the groundwork for the kind of work that you can do in the community. I kept hearing that theme throughout the day: the ways that the work you’re doing, which may not seem like something that is “leadership” or “political” actually is. 

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Erica Hensley, a native of Atlanta, has been working as an investigative reporter focusing on public health for Mississippi Today since May 2018. She is a Knight Foundation fellow for our newsroom’s collaboration with local TV station WLBT and curates The Inform[H]er, our monthly women and girls’ newsletter. She is the 2019 recipient of the Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship. Erica received a bachelor’s in print journalism and political science from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a master’s in health and medical journalism from the University of Georgia Grady College for Journalism and Mass Communication.