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Making science friendlier for women of all ages

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Claudia Morrissey
Claudia Morrissey, UIC’s Woman of the Year, is an advocate for women in science.

Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin

Throughout her 35-year career, Claudia Morrissey has worked to make science and engineering friendlier places for women.

As director of Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) and deputy director in the Center for Research on Women and Gender, she is active in efforts to get teenage girls interested in science and engineering, encourage them to choose those majors in college, then provide support and mentoring once they become researchers.

For her advocacy, Morrissey will receive the UIC Woman of the Year Award Friday at a reception from noon to 1:30 p.m. in Student Center West, sponsored by the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Women.

Morrissey said it is still difficult for women who choose careers in science, engineering and math — fields that have traditionally been male-dominated.

“Women get sucked into this fraudulent system where they think they don’t deserve to be there,” she said.

“They need a support system.”

Increasing the number of women in science begins in junior high and high school with the Girls’ Electronic Mentoring in Science, Engineering and Technology. The national Web-based project connects female scientists with girls who are interested in science-related careers.

WISE supports female college students through mentoring, career workshops, scholarships and other activities.

“Once women are enrolled, the climate is not particularly warm,” she said. “Our goal is not only to increase the number of women who come into the program, but to help them continue.”

Morrissey leads another program — WISEST (Women in Science and Engineering System Transformation) — that offers support and advocacy for women working in science and engineering at UIC.

WISEST offers leadership seminars, mentoring on issues such as tenure and grant writing, and grant awards to help women get their research back on track after time off for caregiving.

The initiative also works to improve the overall climate for women faculty through regular meetings with campus administrators, analyzing gender equity in salaries, grant funding and hiring and by advocating for issues such as an infant day care facility on campus.

“If you look at the facts, even though the number of women entering natural sciences is increasing, there hasn’t been an increase in women faculty (overall),” Morrissey said.

At UIC, “the climate is improving,” she said. “The conditions are right for real change to occur.

“UIC is poised to be in the forefront of gender equity.”

Born in Alliance, Neb., Morrissey and her three sisters followed their mother’s lead and became “raging feminists,” she said with a laugh.

Her father was in agribusiness and her mother, a schoolteacher, “imbued us with the mandate to be of service.”

“We’re all cut from that mold,” she said.

After she earned her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Northern Iowa, she spent seven years working for different advocacy groups as a community health organizer in Mexico, Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

“Expectations and limitations exist in every society,” she said. “It’s how they manifest themselves that is different.”

She returned to college for a medical degree at the Chicago Medical School, followed by an internal medicine residency at University of Iowa and, later, a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins.

Before joining UIC in 2002, Morrissey was deputy director of the JSI Center for Women’s Health, where she focused on international projects in reproductive and family health.

She also practiced internal medicine for 10 years.

“I’ve been a community organizer, physician and policy person,” she said.

Morrissey says her work throughout the world taught her that women everywhere have something in common.

“We all have a basic desire to see our children do well,” she said.

Morrissey and her husband, Kevin Conlon, an oncologist at Rush University Medical Center, have three children: Erin, 19, a sophomore at the University of Chicago who is interested archaeology; Bridget, 18, a University of Michigan freshman studying language and math; and Liam, 16, a junior at Glenbrook South High School.

Some little-known facts about Morrissey: she helped pay for college by singing the blues (literally) and spent a year working in construction (a story for another time, she says).

If there is one main issue Morrissey would like people to consider, it’s this:

Men should have the same child-rearing responsibilities as women; until society recognizes this, there will always be inequality in the workplace.

“Expectations really haven’t changed over 30 years,” she said. “There’s an attempt to shoehorn workers into this outmoded system.”

Praise for Claudia Morrissey

“Her passion, clarity, energy, and courage inspire others to work with her to actualize her vision. She epitomizes the definition of the Woman of the Year.”
Geri Fox, professor of clinical psychiatry

“She is a role model for all who desire institutional change for the better.”
Ishwar Puri, adjunct professor, mechanical and industrial engineering

“Her efforts are likely to continue to pay off for women faculty, staff and students for years to come.”
Alice Dan, professor emerita of nursing and former director of the Center for Research on Women and Gender Claudia Morrissey

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