Encouraged by overcoming barriers, Worthen becomes youngest full professor at OU

Adam Troxtell / The Transcript

Meredith Worthen, professor of sociology at the University of Oklahoma, poses in her office next to a wood carving of Rosie the Riveter that was given to her by a student. Worthen is currently the youngest full professor at OU, and is possibly the youngest woman to be promoted to full in the university's history.

For some, becoming a full professor in sociology, or any field, can take at least half a career and possibly longer. Meredith Worthen remembers learning that in graduate school.

But Worthen isn't some people.

"I remember learning about this in graduate school and thinking, 'I don't want to be a long-term associate professor,'" she said.

That determination paid off. Worthen, 36, is currently the youngest faculty member at the University of Oklahoma to achieve the title of full professor after the board of regents approved her promotion in May. It's also entirely possible she is the youngest woman to reach full professor in OU history, though digital records only go back to 1983.

Worthen's research focus covers deviance, feminist criminology, sexualities, LGBTQ identities in adolescents and LGBTQ stigma.

The transition from associate professor to full professor takes, on average, nine years. Worthen did it in five.

"The idea is you have some sort of national recognition as a scholar in your area," Worthen said.

What makes this an even bigger deal is that, statistically, becoming a full professor is even more difficult for women than it is for men in academia. Unlike the path to tenure that is, for the most part, established at six or seven years, the process to become a full professor is much more vague and has no time limit.

"We just seem to hang out in associate for a long time," Worthen said. "Sometimes for our entire career."

Interestingly enough for Worthen, that phenomenon fits right into her sociology research. So naturally, she looked into the statistics on women becoming full professors.

"We're aware of this gender inequity. The sheer amount of full professors is only about 30 percent women," Worthen said. "This timeline is years longer for women than it is for men. We have women retiring as associates at much higher rates than men, who eventually make it through."

It's the kind of thing that brought Worthen into this job in the first place. She recalls an instance in elementary school when she learned that women statistically earn less money than male coworkers. Worthen remembers the shock and telling her mother about what she had discovered.

"Fortunately, my mom's a super cool feminist," Worthen said. "I think that was really a fiery moment."

It wasn't until the Dallas-native attended the University of Texas that she was introduced to sociology. The field laid out a path for her to lend a voice to the effort to add equality to life.

"These are the tools I can use to push for a dialogue about righting wrongs, lift up oppressed and disenfranchised individuals, creating a space where we're exposing these inequities," Worthen said. "And that intro to sociology class was the language I had been searching for to locate all of that in my 19-year-old mind."

Marc Musick, who is still a professor of sociology at UT, encouraged her to go to grad school. She obtained a bachelor's degree in three years and her master's degree and Ph.D. in five years.

In 2009, the year she obtained her Ph.D., Worthen came to work at OU's Department of Sociology. Becoming a tenured professor from that point normally takes about six or seven years.

Again, Worthen was ahead of the curve, doing it in five.

"I've always been ahead of that sort of timeline," Worthen said.

Worthen is one of four women to become full professors in the sociology department -- Loretta Bass, who is also the first woman department chair; Amy Kroska; and Susan Sharp, who is professor emeritus. She is the youngest woman to achieve full professor in the department's 115 year history.

Tom Burns and Rob Clark are also full professors in sociology. She turned to all of them when it came time to work her way out of associate professor status.

"Once I got tenure, and then I came back from maternity leave, I asked what are the things we're looking for," she said. "The rest of the full professors have a conversation about what that means."

The answer: exposure. Worthen began working on writing articles, and the citations of those articles in other works began to rise.

One of her articles has been cited at least 200 times. In addition, Worthen has created the Welcoming Project, which encourages and facilitates acceptance of the LGBTQ community by working with local businesses and organizations to establish designated safe spaces.

She also created the Instagram account Me Too Meredith, which compiles stories from women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted and shares those to encourage other victims to not feel ashamed of their experiences. It grew to have thousands of followers within a matter of weeks.

Community efforts are considered in full professor promotions.

Then, Worthen had to compile her publications and community work into a dossier, which was sent to similar institutions across the country to be critiqued. Those critiques came back to sociology department faculty members, who then voted to approve her promotion. From there, it moved up the chain until it was ultimately finalized by the board of regents. The process took about a year.

For a sociologist who spends almost all of her time worrying about how societal norms impact other people, it's a chance for Worthen to reflect on herself and her own accomplishments.

"It feels fantastic. I'm so proud of myself. And I know that sounds kind of strange, but I really am," she said.

It certainly helped having three other women as full professors in her department. Worthen said women didn't even become tenured faculty at universities until the 1950s, so significant progress has been made.

But Worthen said there's much further to go.

"I think just lifting each other up is a thing. And all of us know about this long-term associate problem, just generally," Worthen said. "It's not just a woman issue."