In honor of International Women’s Day, President Carol Folt hosted a Herstory event Monday, opening up the celebration by sharing how the women in her own life have inspired her through their resilience, compassion and creativity.
“We all have heroes and role models around us,” Folt said. “In my own life, I can think of my mother and her mother and all those who came before them, and I can think of my daughter and her daughter and all those who will come after them. And I think of my many colleagues and my students over the years, intelligent strong women working alongside me in labs and in administrative roles and as academic leaders.”
The event, hosted over Zoom, emphasized this year’s International Women’s Day theme #ChooseToChallenge, a theme that encourages individuals to highlight women’s achievements and challenge gender bias and inequality. Over the course of the celebration, 10 different Trojan students and alumnae shared their stories, bringing in their diverse perspectives and experiences as women in STEM, business, politics, athletics and the arts.
Before jumping into the event, Folt called attention to women pioneers and heroes, including those who have not traditionally been remembered.
“Let’s also remember the many stories that were never told,” Folt said before introducing the first honored speaker, Hilda Solis. “The stories that were glossed over or simply overlooked. That’s what today is really about: lifting up and celebrating every story. Honoring its truth and embracing its lessons.”
A guidance counselor once said Solis was “not college material.” Years later, after graduating with a master’s in public administration from the Sol Price School of Public Policy and serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, Solis became the United States Secretary of Labor under the Obama administration. Currently, she serves as the supervisor for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
Solis highlighted how significant women are worldwide and in L.A. County alone, where 5.1 million women and girls reside and nearly 60% of the people employed by the county are women. For the first time in the county’s history, the board of supervisors is composed of all women, she said.
Yet, despite “women hold[ing] up more than half the sky in Los Angeles County,” as Solis put it, there is work to be done to combat the gender wage gap between women and men, as well as the social and environmental factors that impact women’s health.
Joyce Bell Limbrick, senior associate athletic director and senior woman administrator in the department of athletics, encouraged those attending the event — whether they identify as men, women or non-binary — to ask themselves how they would accept the call to support women in various ways.
Whether it be by working to minimize the wage gap in their own workplace, supporting girls without access to higher education through school fees and tuition or buying from women-owned businesses, Limbrick emphasized the myriad ways people can directly contribute to the cause.
“How or what will you challenge in support of women?” Limbrick asked. “Let today serve as the impetus in your challenge to barriers that exist for women in your circle, in this country and in the world, for we are all responsible in the fight for equality for women. How you choose to challenge is your decision, but what is most important is that you make sure your choice counts.”
One of the barriers many speakers at the event have worked to dismantle is the lack of women in leadership positions or traditionally “male” fields.
Radhika Agrawal, a senior majoring in computer engineering and computer science, shared how it felt to be the only woman on her robotics team in high school and how she would find herself researching before meetings in order to “prove [her] worth.” Over the years, she said she has heard many misconceptions that people have about women in her field, including quips about women who “only got that job because she’s a woman.”
“It’s not just me either,” Agrawal said. “Many of the women I’ve mentored and talked to have shared this sense of feeling the need to prove ourselves to our teammates.”
Andrea Armani, the chair of chemical engineering and materials science at USC, shared her experience of being “the girl” throughout her academic training as well, but said when she joined the faculty her “world tilted on its axis” as she walked into a classroom that was nearly 50% women. In 2019, the Viterbi School of Engineering achieved gender parity, with women composing 50% of its entering class.
“These students are role models for me, for this campus and also for the world,” Armani said. “This type of environment is really critical in order to catalyze innovation. Not only do scholars from different backgrounds bring unique concerns and experiences to the lab, into business, they often are able to connect ideas and concepts that had previously been overlooked or ignored.”
Mayor of Compton Aja Brown also highlighted the importance of amplifying female perspectives and leadership, asserting that “to omit women is to omit our collective advancement as human beings.”
Brown brought up various pieces of research that have shown the benefits of including women in organizations and positions of leadership. She cited research that found having women in organizations leads to better problem solving and innovation from the diversity of thought, as well as reports that women are better at making deals in the Senate than their male counterparts.
Nearly all of the speakers expressed that seeing women in leadership positions, breaking barriers and in their current roles, continues to inspire them. From senior neuroscience major Elizabeth Hannan finding a hero in her mother, to Brown finding a hero in Stacy Abrams and Agrawal finding a hero in Reshma Saujani — the first Indian American to run for Congress and the founder and CEO of Girls Who Code — themes of gratitude and reverence were expressed.
Undergraduate Student Government President and Vice President-elects Alexis Areis and Lucy Warren said they were inspired by the first all-women ticket to run for USG president and vice president in 2015, Rini Sampath and Jordan Fowler. Areias said that when people expressed doubt in their ability to win with an all-women ticket, it was her confidence in Warren and their abilities, as well as her confidence in the student body for seeing them as more than their gender, that helped her remain certain she could do it. Her confidence was also inspired by Sampath and Fowler, she said.
“There was so much comfort in knowing that six years before us, two women took a leap that made our campaign all the more possible,” she said.
Warren said she and Areias want to continue normalizing having women in power.
“The reality of it is, there are still challenges with the way that women in leadership are perceived,” Warren said. “We must work to normalize our positions in leadership and recognize that as great as these feats are, the real victory will be felt as soon as these conversations cease to be had.”
Tying up the event, Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, the chair of the political science and international relations department and upcoming Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences Center for Leadership by Women of Color, thanked President Folt and other women leaders in the USC community for their leadership.
“Women belong everywhere people need quality air to breathe, art created, governments to run, businesses to found and families to inspire,” Hancock Alfaro said. “While today is International Women’s Day, remember that every day there is an opportunity to collaborate with, engage in leadership with and benefit from women here and abroad.”