Alumna on overcoming barriers and collecting credibility

Dr. Dawn Jourdan ’96.

March 24, 2013

By Emily Laidley ’13

Dr. Dawn Jourdan ‘96 said she braved the “men’s world” of lawyers and developers before taking on the world of developers as a division director of city and regional planning at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma.

A Bradley graduate with a double major in theatre arts and urban affairs, Jourdan later earned a law degree and then a Master’s in urban planning. She returned recently to campus to talk not only about career opportunities in her field but the challenges she and women like her have faced.

Jourdan said she struggled through law school at the University of Kansas but did not understand why until she enrolled in a class that examined gender issues. The eye-opening course revealed how law school was built on very masculine psychology.

"I started thinking about all the places where I clerked and got called ‘darling’ and ‘honey,’ or was paraded around on projects, not because I was the best, but because I was the girl.”

Dr. Jourdan said it was a female mentor that helped her succeed in law school. With inequities and barriers still present in the legal field, Dr. Jourdan explained that having mentors for women is especially important.

“What is it that you can do to make sure that women have good, solid, sound experiences in law firms and in public policy jobs?” she asked. “The answer comes down to mentorship. Making sure that people, all people, have good mentors who are sensitive to all things.”

Jourdan worked as a lawyer a few years in Chicago before changing careers to academia though she has continued to use her legal expertise in her current profession. For example, Dr. Jourdan has worked to restore and preserve historic downtowns, improve public housing projects and better environmental planning.

“My present passion,” she said, “is my dissertation topic. How do you prepare future generations for the problems that they will inherit?”

Katie Spoden, a senior sociology major from Aurora, Ill., asked Jourdan what she thought was the biggest challenge about being a woman in her field. Jourdan replied that being seen as credible in the eyes of colleagues was an initial problem.

“When you’re working with a bunch of developers, who are typically male and have experience being around a job site, me in my high heels and make up doesn’t necessarily send to them the sign that I am competent and creative,” she said. “So learning to be OK with the fact that their perception starts one way, and that you have to work to change it.”

Dr. Jourdan explained the best way she found to respond to this situation is to remain calm and acquire one’s rightful reputation over time. “The biggest barrier is frustration and the desire to just zoom past that phase,” she said.