Portrait of women symbolizes 20 years of work by Women’s Resource Center

Posted March 31, 2012, at 6:31 p.m.
Last modified April 01, 2012, at 1:12 p.m.
Sharon Barker, founding director of the Women's Resource Center at the University of Maine, is proud to mark their 20th anniversary. Behind Barker is a piece of art painted and donated by former student Sylvia Herbold.
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Sharon Barker, founding director of the Women's Resource Center at the University of Maine, is proud to mark their 20th anniversary. Behind Barker is a piece of art painted and donated by former student Sylvia Herbold. Buy Photo

ORONO, Maine — Four years ago, Sylvia Herbold went looking for a wall.

The University of Maine art student needed a place where she would hang the painting that would be her honors project. Now an art teacher in Ellsworth, Herbold, 26, of Surry found what she was looking for at the Women’s Resource Center in Fernald Hall.

“The WRC is a vital space for women on campus to go for a variety of reasons,” Herbold said Saturday in an email. “Reproductive rights, equal wages and domestic violence are still current problems, and young women on a college campus need access to this information.

“Once I talked to [WRC Director] Sharon Barker about her goals for the center, I knew I had found the ideal space,” Herbold continued. “I designed a 36-inch-by-40-inch canvas with a pastiche of women’s faces, from different generations. I am a portrait painter and the faces came from other portraits I’ve done of my role models and people close to me, including my grandmother.”

For Barker, the painting visually depicts one of the most important roles the center plays on campus and in the broader community — connecting girls and women across generations, cultures and careers and, by meeting and working together, becoming empowered.

“I love this painting,” Barker said Wednesday sitting on a couch
underneath Herbold’s painting titled, Mothers and Daughters. “A lot of the work that I am proudest of here are projects that students took a hold of and developed. It’s been really gratifying to see the leadership growth of women students working on things in here. It’s also really good to see other women come together and network with other women on campus and in the community. We provide a space to do that.”

The Women’s Resource Center marks its 20th anniversary with an event at 2 p.m. Thursday, April 12 at UMaine’s Buchanan Alumni House, according to a university press release.

Lyn Mikel Brown, professor of education and human development at Colby College and author, will speak on the importance of empowering girls to take control of their lives and to assume leadership roles in countering negative cultural attitudes toward girls and women.

The center opened in the fall of 1991. Its creation was recommended as the result of a commission on the status of women at UMaine penned in the late 1980s, according to Barker, who has been the director at the center since it opened. It was created to complement the women’s studies program, which concentrated on academics. The Women’s Resource Center was to focus on personnel and professional development issues, act as a liaison to the community and be an advocate for women on campus, Barker said.

Today, the center is best known at the university for the Safe Campus Project, which strives to reduce sexual assault, relationship abuse and stalking by encouraging healthy and consensual relationships, Barker said.

Off campus, the center’s most recognized program is called “Expanding Your Horizons.” It brings 500 middle school girls each spring to the university to learn about math- and science-oriented careers traditionally pursued by males. The daylong event allows them to participate in hands-on workshops overseen by women working and/or studying in fields that require sophisticated math and science skills.

“The Women’s Resource Center is an excellent example of a living, changing organism that excels in recognizing and addressing current issues of equity for women at the University of Maine and throughout the state,” Lu Zeph, interim associate provost and dean of the division of lifelong learning, said last week. “Over the past 20 years, the center

has established partnerships with a broad network of individuals and organizations that are responsive to the needs of women and girls throughout Maine. The visibility and respect that the Women’s Resource Center has achieved is in great part due to the leadership and commitment of its founding director, Sharon Barker.”

The WRC is part of the Division of Lifelong Learning.

Barker worked half time until 1999 when her position became full time temporarily with external grant money. That year, however, the Women’s Resource Center budget minus her salary was $24,192. When the Safe Campus Project came under the direction of the center in the 2004 academic year, the budget increased dramatically and a full-time person was hired to run it.

The center’s budget, like many other departments and programs at UMaine, has yo-yoed over the last five years. It was $153,147 in the 2007 academic year and reached an all-time high of $194,383 two years later. This year’s budget is $172,731.

Barker said that while she has encountered few critics of the center’s work on campus, the work of the Women’s Resource Center has been criticized indirectly by members of the community. Its recent focus on involving more girls and women in fields requiring science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, skills drew fire four years ago from Ike Morgan of Exeter, a high school math and physics teacher.

“Flawed studies, misinformation and a focused political agenda are at work again as another wave of feminism is hell-bent on transforming college science and math departments into politically correct, anti-male bastions of affirmative action,” he wrote in an Op-Ed piece published March 26, 2008, in the Bangor Daily News.

“Also of no concern to the feminists is the huge amount of empirical evidence that suggests women gravitate towards fields such as education, psychology and art history while men are more interested in fields of science, mathematics and engineering. This fact of the nature of men and women flies in the face of feminist doctrine and is easily ‘airbrushed’ aside,” he wrote.

Barker said that despite gains women made in society and the work force in the 1970s and ’80s, not much has changed statistically for women in the past 20 years.

“The wage gap for example is very similar to what it was [in 1991],” she said. “Many professions that were male dominated back then are still male dominated. There are still few women in positions of leadership in all segments of society — politics, business. Women are really still clustered in certain sectors of the labor market.”

Statistics gathered from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics and released in March by the Institute of Women’s Policy Research stated that 25 years ago women earned about 70 cents for every $1 men earned. Last year, women earned nearly 82 cents for every $1 men did.

“Even though there’s been a lot of progress over the years for individual women, there’s still a long way to go, Barker said. “People assume we’ve made more progress than we have.”

Because of that, the university and the community still need what the Women’s Resource Center can offer, she said.

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