Bridge Hall, USC Marshall

100 Percent Positive

MPOWER lifts female doctoral candidates across Marshall

June 09, 2020
MPower supports female doctoral students

Throughout her career, Sarah Bonner has established a pattern of trailblazing. The Ernst & Young Professor of Accounting in the USC Leventhal School of Accounting not only joined a male-dominated field when she was named assistant professor in 1992, Bonner remains one of only a handful of scholars in accounting who studies behavior. In 2017, she received the American Accounting Association Lifetime Contribution Award in Behavioral Accounting.

Among Bonner’s contributions to her field is a lesser-known accomplishment. In 2013, she and a group of PhD students launched Marshall Panels on Women’s Experiences in Research (MPOWER), an ongoing extra-curricular organization established  to support and encourage female doctoral candidates. MPOWER may end up being one of the greatest things Bonner has given Marshall and academia.  

“One of MPOWER’s greatest values is providing an opportunity for individuals to see others get through the struggles and succeed."—Francesca Valsesia, former Marshall Ph.D. student, current Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of Washington's Foster School of Business

She got the idea for the group while teaching her Experimental Design class to Ph.D. students from across Marshall. As it turned out, all the students in class that year were women. Over time, they found themselves not only discussing research methods, but also their personal and professional lives beyond the classroom. Bonner recognized the need among them for a gender-based community and support network. She invited three students—Arianna Uhalde, Francesca Valsesia and Roshni Raveendhran—to work with her to coordinate the group.

“We realized we had to formalize the experience we had together,” Bonner said. “Now we have meetings once a semester to talk about issues in the academic world, particularly focusing on their relevance for women. For example, we recently discussed some of the unique issues women face when teaching.”

Extracurricular Insights

“I didn’t even realize that was a thing,” said Elisa Solinas, regarding the difference between the ways female and male teachers are treated. “I was blown away. But every meeting is like that.” 

Currently a Ph.D. candidate in marketing and one of three 2019–20 coordinators of MPOWER, Solinas said the group has been an antidote to the solitude of academic life. “It’s nice to know you have a community around you and it’s okay to reach out. I was lucky to join in my first year. I was really lucky.”

Valsesia said MPower was originally designed to help women balance work and life. “Sarah stressed the importance of that balance from the beginning,” said Valsesia, now an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. “It’s not something that exists everywhere at the Ph.D. level.”

The 90-minute gatherings are organized around a panel discussion between three female faculty members who answer a series of pre-determined questions. The student coordinators work with Bonner to identify topics and reach out to potential panel participants. Anywhere between 10 and 25 students from across Marshall’s academic departments attend each meeting.

“It’s good that it includes all the female Ph.D. students in Marshall instead of everyone coming from one discipline,” said Valsesia. “Including more than your department helps people break out of the usual dynamics of departmental interactions.”

Close-knit Group

No matter the makeup or size of a meeting, the students say there’s a level of intimacy that they appreciate. “I love getting to know the faculty and hearing their stories,” said Mindy Truong, a Ph.D. candidate in management and organization, and a current coordinator of the group. “It takes away the glamor, shows the reality of being a faculty member and what the work really means. It makes me think it’s possible for me.”

Katherine Bruere, also a current coordinator, said the meetings always create a safe space to share a personal experience or perspective. She was grateful to be able to share her own news of a miscarriage with friends in the group and faculty supporters. “Everyone was so helpful,” she said. “I want to be supportive for others like that too.”

Uhalde, now an Assistant Professor of Clinical Marketing at Marshall, stressed the group’s mission is to provide support to women through conversation and mentorship. This can be particularly important for Ph.D. students who may be struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental health challenges. 

“There are alarming statistics about depression and suicide on university campuses,” Uhalde said. “I remember as a student feeling a bit lost myself. When we started MPOWER, we could see there was a problem to solve and a need to fulfill. Sarah recognized that a new support system for women would be impactful, and she was right.” 

Stephanie Smallets, the MPOWER coordinator in 2019, felt the support of the community when she was deciding not to pursue a career in the academic world. She said one of her takeaways from the group was that, “Even in tough situations, you will survive. There are no wrong choices.” When Smallets finished her degree later that year, she joined the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, where she is now an associate in Organization Practice.

“MPOWER provides a space to ask questions,” Uhalde said. “This can be especially helpful for students who aren’t entirely comfortable speaking up in class, in department meetings, or with their advisor. MPOWER is a diverse group, which lends itself to broad perspectives. The faculty aren’t there to evaluate students, which can be really comforting and freeing.”

Going Forward

After seven years serving as mentor, logistics manager and primary cookie provider for MPOWER, this spring Bonner handed faculty leadership of the group to Leigh Tost, Associate Professor of Management and Organization. 

Other changes may be on the horizon as well. For example, the organizers have discussed including male Ph.D. students. Over the years, men have expressed an interest and noted that the topics would offer them new perspectives. But Bruere said what’s more likely is that they might start adding social events to the calendar. 

“Until now the meetings have always been structured around the group discussion,” she said. “I’d like to see more social events so we can get to know each other in different contexts.”

Whatever changes, the fundamental purpose of MPOWER will survive. “One of MPOWER’s greatest values is providing an opportunity for individuals to see others get through the struggles and succeed,” said Valsesia. “It was so refreshing to know our individual experiences are shared. My involvement in MPOWER was 100 percent positive.”