Education as the Great Equalizer

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Alumni Rosalie O'Reilly Wooten '64, Andrew Morton '11 and Yesy Perez '18 shed some light on how their degrees helped build careers in gender nontraditional fields.

By Emelia Enquist ’14, Web Editor and Emily Letterman, University Writer/Editor

Because the glass ceiling is clear, it’s sometimes hard to see. It’s an argument recognized from the boardroom to the classroom. But as of late, some believe a crack may be forming.

Women not only have a seat at the table, but are at the forefront of innovation and change. A NASA crew just completed the first all-female space-walk, more women than ever before are running for president and the latest Disney princess is a lightsaber swinging Jedi fighter with a ponytail.

This evolution of thought on traditional gender roles has been a long time coming. And while there may still be room to go, the education has begun in earnest – and that may be the key.

“Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance wheel of the social machinery,” said pioneering educator Horace Mann in 1848.

Mann molded teaching into a profession. Drury University built upon his work.

“One hundred and thirty-five years ago, members of the Congregationalist Church founded Drury College. Their Christian faith was central to that effort. Samuel Drury was a devoted abolitionist who sought to create a community welcoming to all. The first president, Nathan Morrison, believed that God valued women as much as men. Thus, he encouraged higher education for both genders,” wrote Dr. Peter Browning, in a 2008 issue of Drury Magazine.

Higher education has grown exponentially since Drury graduated its first class of five, all women, in 1875. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of working men between ages 25 and 64 with a college degree doubled from 1970 to 2017. Meanwhile, the number of working degree-holding women quadrupled.

Rosalie O'Reilly WootenRosalie O’Reilly Wooten answered the call in 1964, when she graduated from Drury and became a high school English teacher. She’s more well-known, however, for her efforts in the family business, O’Reilly Auto Parts.

“Higher education opens otherwise closed professional doors,” she says of her career as an executive vice president at the auto parts company. “If I hadn’t gotten a college degree, I wouldn’t have been a very good candidate.”

At O’Reilly and in general, Wooten sees cultural shifts as women take on leadership roles.

“You’re not just the secretary or assistant anymore,” she says.

THE CONDITIONS OF MEN – AND WOMEN

Wooten joined the business in 1980 as a special projects coordinator and worked her way up the chain, eventually joining the O’Reilly Auto Parts Board of Directors. A member of the company’s management team for the previous 12 years, her knowledge was integral as the board took O’Reilly public in 1993. In addition to her board role, Wooten was the director of the company’s Risk Management Insurance and Telecommunications departments until her retirement in 2002. During that time, she also served on the decision-making Executive Committee.

Because the number of women in corporate boards is so low, Wooten believes any woman on a board holds tremendous influence. Rather than breaking the glass ceiling, reaching a critical mass is key.

“I’m a real believer that the person has to do the work, regardless of gender,” she says. “No one is just going to pluck you out of the crowd. If women are there and working hard, they’re going to be given the opportunity.”

According to the 2018 Gender Diversity Index, on the Russell 1,000 – an index of 1,000 of the largest companies in the American equity market – women make up just 21.3 percent of all board members.

"I'm a real believer that the person has to do the work. No one is just going to pluck you out of the crowd." - Rosalie O'Reilly Wooten '64Wooten, also a Drury emeritus trustee, says she seized the opportunities she was given, learning the company and establishing ownership of her role. Wooten did the work and, last year, the world took notice. WomenInc. magazine included Wooten on its list of 2018 Influential Corporate Directors.

Still serving on the O’Reilly board, Wooten is thrilled to see both men and women working with a desire to progress professionally upward.

BREAKING (EMOTIONAL) BARRIERS

Men are construction workers and women are elementary teachers, right? Maybe 50 years ago, but those stereotypes are falling by the wayside, thanks to people like Nixa Public Schools teacher Andrew Morton. Like Wooten, Morton believes each unique perspective brings an innovative strength to fields seeking growth and diversity.

The 2011 Drury grad is in his second year as a behavior intervention facilitator, working with fourth, fifth and sixth graders. His role tasks him with supporting teachers by helping students with environmental and socioemotional needs, navigating the 21st century’s new norms and para- digms to establish behavior plan goals.

As a man in a position focused on both children and emotional welfare, Morton acknowledges he’s in the minority among his colleagues. However, he uses his status to benefit the greater educational good. Morton recognizes he’s setting an example for male students who may not otherwise have strong positive male figures in their lives. He’s happy to model a masculinity that embraces happiness.

“You can be happy and bubbly,” he says.

Moreover, he’s okay with challenging the traditional gender stereotype that men are unemotional. He wants his students to know that men, put simply, can be kind.

Morton believes his master’s degree equipped him to step into a role that changes students’ lives at a time when a positive influence is sorely needed. He seeks to find ways to help kids who are struggling. He believes that hard life events shouldn’t make a child’s entire school year bad, so he happily works to ensure students have the tools and support they need to be holistically successful in school.

A LIFE WELL-LIVED

A college degree can help people reach beyond constraints imposed not just by gendered norms, but by socioeconomic factors.

“People who obtain a college degree have better career opportunities with more job satisfaction,” says Yesy Perez, director of Drury’s Somos program. “The education you obtain [in college] allows you to have a 360 vision of the world around you and find your place.”

"The education you obtain [in college] allows you to have a 360 vision of the world around you and find your place." - Yesy Perez '18Funded through the U.S. Department of Education’s College Assistance Migrant Program, Somos supports migrant or seasonal agricultural workers’ family members’ college careers.

Perez, a first-generation college graduate, experienced firsthand the equalizing factor of higher education. She earned her degree in Organizational Communication and Development from Drury in 2018.

“My road to self-discovery began with my college education,” she says. “Obtaining my college degree gave me the opportunity to be in my current role as a program director. I am now able to provide a decent living for my children and know that I can provide them with a better future.”

The broadening education and work ethic involved in earning a college degree is a tool for motivated individuals to bolster their futures. The degree itself may cut a path, but its holder blazes the trail.

For Wooten, blazing that trail is gratifying. She hopes her legacy is one of clearing the path for women to take on corporate management jobs. Her advice for people working in nontraditional gender roles?

“Is your goal achievable? Are you doing everything?” she says. “Tell people what you want and ask for what you want. Go the extra mile. Put yourself out there and let it be known. Do the work and the opportunities will come your way.”