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Michelle S. Williams, PhD, MSPH – Assistant Professor, Department of Global and Community Health, at George Mason University

About Michelle S. Williams
Michelle S. Williams is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Global and Community Health at Virginia’s George Mason University (GMU). She also chairs the Women’s Caucus of the American Public Health Association (APHA). Dr. Williams holds a PhD in Health Education and Health Promotion and a Master of Science in Public Health (MSPH) with a specialization in Health Outcomes Research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She completed her bachelor’s degree in biology and a Master of Public Health (MPH) degrees at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (Florida A&M) and served as an Environmental Health Specialist at the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee. Dr. Williams’ research focuses on cancer prevention among women, including health education interventions with African-American breast cancer survivors in rural communities, cervical cancer screening initiatives in Ghana, and the dissemination of the HPV vaccine in the US.

Interview Questions

[] There are multiple pathways that can lead to a career in public health and there are numerous specializations in the field. You earned a Master of Public Health degree and got your PhD in Health Education and Health Promotion. What were some of the formative experiences that led you to choose that pathway?

It started in college, specifically my senior year of college. When I was a freshman, my intention was to become a medical doctor. I volunteered at an emergency room in the Tallahassee area, where I was in college. I spent hours and hours in the emergency room and, through those experiences, I became aware of the significant disparities among the people who were being treated there. I was also in a leadership position in an organization on campus at Florida A&M. I had taken on the position of being the Health Education Committee chair, and I really liked being involved in health education. I enjoyed the process of making pamphlets about different health issues, and I was involved in setting up booths on campus where we gave out free condoms. So, as I got closer to graduating and began considering what I was going to do next, I thought about the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at Florida A&M, which was a relatively new program at the time, and decided to apply.

[] What drew you to public health as opposed to medicine?

I got into public health because of its focus on preventing illness and addressing the underlying causes of disease. Again, thinking back to the time I had spent working in the emergency room, we were seeing people come in who were not in an emergency situation but who were seeking treatment at the emergency room either because they didn’t have other options or they weren’t aware of other care options. So they were coming into the emergency room, which is a lot more expensive than seeing a primary care physician, and that left me with a lot of questions about our healthcare system way back in 2000, when I was entering the MPH program. That’s where my interest came from. It grew once I began the MPH program and got to do internships at the local health department. It felt like this was definitely an area in which I wanted to be.

Once I completed my MPH degree, I found a position as an adjunct instructor teaching health education and to me it was much more than just teaching a college course. It was about teaching people how to be healthy. The course was called Quality of Life, and that experience had an impact on me. My interest just grew from there and when I decided to get my PhD it was in Health Education and Health Promotion.

[] Was there any point along the way at which you were made aware or you became aware that women in your chosen field faced unique challenges or specific hurdles either in the academic sphere or the professional world?

I think I became aware of that during the first semester of my MPH program. Florida A&M is an historically black institution. I had grown up in predominantly white communities. So being at an historically black institution was different. I didn’t exactly forget about inequalities and things of that nature, but they weren’t as front and center as they could have been. Then, during the first semester of my MPH program, I remember taking a professional development seminar during which the program director shared with us her experiences of getting her PhD in public health and doing work at Harvard University. She recalled people using racial slurs and even spitting at her. When you hear stories like that you start to realize that, hey, you know, this utopia that I’m in here at Florida A&M is not representative of the reality that is out there in the world. There are inequities and there are times when you are going to be the only black woman in the room and things of that nature. So, that’s when it really started coming into focus for me.

When I started getting out into the field and when I started teaching, it became more of a reality. I remember when I started teaching health education in the classroom it became apparent to me that, for a lot of my students, I was the first black woman professor that they had even taken a class with.

[] There are definitely issues of intersectionality there with you being a woman of color and both of those factors impacting your experiences in the classroom. Was this something that would continue to come up as you advanced in your career as an academic?

Yes. As I mentioned, Florida A&M was a bit of a utopia for me because I did not feel like a minority. But when you leave that campus environment and enter a different environment, you begin to notice things. So, for example, when I started pursuing graduate coursework at a predominantly white university, there were a lot of times when I was the only black person or the only black woman in a class or in a meeting or doing whatever. And you begin to notice microaggressions and things of that nature. At UAB, where I got my PhD, it was not at all uncommon for me to be the only black woman in a situation, and in those situations you definitely begin to feel the racism. This was in the 2000s.

There’s a book on the subject called Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. It was written by a black woman in academia (Angela P. Harris). She identifies with many of the attitudes I encountered. For example, there was one situation in particular where someone had reviewed the resumés of me and of another person who I was in a training program with. The person who’d reviewed the resumés was complimenting the other person in the training program – we’ll call her Beth – for all the publications that she had. Beth turned to me and said, “I don’t know what she’s talking about; I don’t have any publications.” What she was referring to was me and my resumé. She’d read the resumés and she remembered that one of us had a number of publications, so she just assumed that it was Beth.

[] I presume that the other person in that training program was white.

Yes. And the woman reviewing the resumé eventually realized that she had made a mistake. But it was a reminder that people make assumptions and that you can be presumed incompetent or less than because you are a black woman.

[] That sounds like the kind of implicit bias that lacks malicious intent but that nonetheless reveals something troubling about the role race and gender play in all kinds of decisions and judgements that people make. I think the hope would be that as the number of women and women of color enter a profession, those implicit biases would steadily erode. In public health and epidemiology the first part of that is happening: Women and, to a lesser extent, women of color are well represented and currently there is not a major gender disparity in overall employment in public health fields. Unfortunately, by most accounts, men continue to occupy a disproportionate number of leadership positions in public health, epidemiology, and related fields. Does that align with your experiences?

Absolutely. From what I see as a professor in the classroom, the majority of the students are women. But then when you look at leadership positions. The department chairs are predominantly male. The faculty at many of these schools are predominantly female and yet the deans of these schools are mostly men. Even when I was working at the health department in Tallahassee it was very much the same way. The majority of the people who were the lower-tier employees were women, while men occupied the higher positions. Unfortunately, I think it’s like that in many fields, so I don’t think public health is unique in that way.

[] What do you think accounts for these disparities?

I think there are a number of factors. But it definitely goes back to these gendered roles and stereotypes that people seem to have. I’ll use myself as an example. Before I became cognizant of the fact that I have to speak up for myself in my profession and that I have to ask for a specific salary and for other things that I want, I just assumed that people would treat you fairly. But you start to see that that’s not the case. I do think that sometimes it just comes down to women not speaking up for themselves in their profession, whether it’s about salary or something else. This is something that one of my mentors told me a long time ago when she was negotiating her salary. You have to negotiate your salary based on what people in your field are making and on what you believe that you are worth. Sometimes women just aren’t taught that.

Another thing is that we have to learn how to… I don’t know how to say this the right way but, speaking as a black woman, you have to learn how to approach people without offending them or coming off as an angry black woman. I remember attending a national mentoring program and there was a male professor leading a session. He was talking about how when he wanted to get some equipment for a project, he would walk into the office of his department chair and say, “I want some toys” in a demanding voice. I thought to myself at the time that if I walked into someone’s office and used that same tone, it would be taken completely differently. Whether it’s fair or not, we have to navigate these situations and make requests in a way that is not going to be offensive or come off as angry.

[] It’s not the first time I heard a story like that and, as you noted before, this dynamic is not something that is unique to the field of public health or even to academia. I want to ask you about that in relation to your involvement with the Women’s Caucus of the American Public Health Association (APHA), where you are the current chairperson. What does your work with the Women’s Caucus entail?

It’s funny you should ask because we just had an executive committee meeting today. The Women’s Caucus is an organization that is affiliated with the APHA and that focuses primarily on women’s health issues. As the chair, I have the responsibility of organizing different committee activities about issues in women’s health. My area of specialization is cancer prevention in women. Ask me something about cancer prevention in women and I will get you an answer. But there are so many other aspects of public health that are important in regards to women’s health, so we have a variety of committees, including a policy committee, in which we try to address women’s health issues from multiple perspectives. For example, in the policy committee they are currently working on developing policies related to fourth-trimester care for women after pregnancy [from birth to 12 weeks postpartum].

[] Does the Women’s Caucus focus on professional issues for women in public health or primarily on women’s public health issues?

So, we mostly focus on women’s public health issues, like cancer prevention in women and fourth-trimester care. But I also like to think of the Women’s Caucus as a place where we can spotlight the work of women who are doing great work in the field of public health. We have member highlights and, because not all of the work in public health is done in academic institutions, we make an effort to focus on women who are doing work in other sectors, as well as in academia. We also organize webinars where we feature the women who are doing interesting and important work in public health and on women’s health issues. So, we are focused on highlighting the women who are doing work in public health, but also on the public health work that those women are doing, if that makes sense.

[] It does. And that would seem to get at two related reasons why it remains important to have prominent women in a field like public health. For one, there’s a benefit to having role models who can inspire the next cohort of women and make them feel more at home in a field in which men occupy a disproportionate number of leadership positions. In addition, it seems reasonable to conclude that women would be more likely to work on health issues that are of particular import to women. Have you seen evidence of that?

Oh yes. One of the things we spend time identifying are public health issues that impact women but that aren’t necessarily headline news and that aren’t yet part of the mainstream discussion about women’s health. Fourth-trimester care is a good example of that. I had never heard of it. But, clearly, it’s an important issue. And there are issues that, because they only affect a small group of women, aren’t getting attention. Last year we organized a webinar that focused on reproductive health issues faced by women in detention centers on the US border. It’s a relatively small population of women, but the health issues in that population are significant.

[] Mentorship is often raised in many fields as one way of addressing gender and also racial disparities. What are your thoughts on that approach?

That’s a good question. I have mixed feelings about mentorship because I’ve had some great mentors and I’ve also had some not-so-great mentors. I think one of the key issues with mentorship is figuring out what you want or need mentorship for. For example, is it an issue where I perhaps want to find a mentor who is a black woman or is it an issue where I just want to find an expert in the field or someone who has a lot of experience in a particular area?

One of my best mentors is a white male, and one of my other very good mentors is a white female. I get different things from them. So finding the right kind of mentor who can offer help and guidance in a specific area is important. Of course, I wouldn’t go to the white male and ask him how to have a conversation as a black woman and not be perceived as an angry black woman. I would probably go to a black female who has perhaps had that experience.

So I think it’s important to have a team of mentors. And, for a woman, having a male mentor can be a big help. For example, the story of the male professor who was demanding equipment from his department chair gave me a new perspective that helps me in figuring out how I want to approach asking for things I need, if that makes sense.

[] Yes, it does. Now, you’re on the faculty at George Mason University in the Department of Global and Community Health, correct? Do you teach undergraduates, graduate students, or both?

So far, I have taught both. My first semester at George Mason was last fall and I was teaching undergraduates. This semester I am teaching graduate students.

[] Before that you were teaching at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and those were graduate courses, correct?

Yes. I was teaching master’s and PhD students.

[] From your vantage point as a professor, what is your perspective on the current state of gender disparities in the field of public health?

That’s the interesting part. I definitely see the gender disparities. At the undergraduate and graduate level the students are predominantly female. And then when you look to leadership positions, it’s still predominantly male.

[] Do you see that changing at all?

Honestly, I have not seen it change very much. I think there is the potential for it to happen. But I think it has to come down to being more focused on training women for leadership positions and giving them the confidence to pursue leadership positions. Without that, I don’t know that it will naturally happen. My first faculty position after I got my PhD was in a school of nursing. Among the entire faculty, there were two or maybe three men. But our dean was a man. This is nothing against him. But it does illustrate the extent to which these disparities exist. Out of all the women at that nursing school, the person who had become dean was a man.

[] With that in mind, what advice would you offer to young women and young black women who are considering pursuing a career in public health? How would you suggest that they navigate the field as you know it?

I would tell them to read a book titled The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table by Minda Harts. It’s written by a black woman whose field is not public health. But the advice she gives in terms of career development and navigating toward your career goals is applicable in public health. She talks about being deliberate about achieving your goals, and how you have to learn how to present yourself in a manner that is respectable and forceful but that does not play into gender stereotypes like that of the angry black woman. I read the book two years ago and it made a big impact on me. I think it offers really practical advice and, like I said before, I don’t think things are naturally going to change in public health or any other field in terms of gender disparities. It’s going to have to result from individual women acting very deliberately and understanding their career goals and what it is going to take to get there. If you do want to be the dean of a college or the president of a university or the head of a CDC office, you have to plan it out and be deliberate about how you navigate your career. That’s how things will change.

Matt Ashare

Matt Ashare is a writer with 25 years of experience in publishing. He was an editor at the Boston Phoenix and a contributor to other publications, including Rolling Stone, Spin, and the Village Voice. He now teaches journalism at Randolph College, and occasionally writes a column for the Central Virginia weekly The Burg.