VOL. 111 | NO. 214 | Friday, November 14, 1997
By SUZANNE THOMPSON
With women at heart
Dr. Phyllis Betts devotes her life work to
the study of women and their roles
By SUZANNE THOMPSON
The Daily News
In a high school in the 1960s, a female student with stellar scores on her standardized achievement tests went to the school counselor for career guidance and said she wanted to be a dental hygienist.
The counselor thought that was an acceptable vocation, and although the students test scores were outstanding, the counselor didnt encourage her toward more lofty ambitions.
That student was Dr. Phyllis Betts, associate professor at the Center for Research on Women in the sociology department of the University of Memphis.
Betts said she became interested in gender bias years ago and now splits her time between researching and teaching.
During her more than 20 years of teaching, she has prepared more than 20 courses and accompanying curriculum in sociology.
In doing so, Betts said she learned a lot as a teacher, too.
The research for one course she taught, the sociology of poverty, revealed women and children make up the majority of the poor.
"Once you look at the sociology of poverty, you cant ignore that men and women stack up differently," Betts said.
Once she earned her undergraduate degree in sociology at the University of Illinois, Carbondale, in 1972, Betts was ready for the sociological field.
She began her research in 1974 at the University of Chicago, where she participated in the South Shore Community Study and Urban Field Work course.
In this model, an investment company purchased the South Shore National Bank near the campus of the University of Chicago to see if the banks presence could make a difference in the community.
South Shore originally was composed of Irish and Jewish people, but the areas ethnicity shifted to African-American in the 1970s.
The initial ideal of the research was to determine how much of a stabilizing influence the bank could provide to the community.
Affluent African-Americans, such as Jesse Jackson, began moving into the area, and the experiment proved so successful that the same investment company has purchased a bank in Arkadelphia, Ark., to see how the theory will work in a rural setting.
She received her masters degree in sociology from the University of Chicago, and in 1976, Betts became an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Asheville.
She received her doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1978.
While continuing to teach at UNCA, Betts became the founding director in 1985 of the universitys honors program, a post she held until 1990 when she came to the University of Memphis.
Betts came to Memphis to head the U of Ms honors program.
She said she has noticed more women participate in the honors program than men.
"Thats not to say there arent as many honor students who are men," she said, "Its just that more women than men participate in the program."
She said she believes this is a result of cultural training.
"As women, we are encouraged to seek approval and do the right thing," Betts said.
Directing the honors programs at both universities has given Betts a unique perspective about role modeling.
"I learned a lot about how individuals can really make a difference in inspiring other people," she said.
Betts said she also is involved in several ongoing research projects in addition to her teaching duties at U of M.
One is a national project called the Neighborhood Preservation Initiative. Of the nine cities participating, Betts said Memphis is the only one in the South.
The Pew Charitable Trusts donated $500,000 to each participating city with the understanding that the community had to match the donation.
The Vollintine-Evergreen Community Association was formed and raised money from several local sources to match the Pew donation.
She said that neighborhood was chosen for several reasons including a shift from home ownership to rental property and changing racial dynamics.
Betts said it is interesting to note that more women than men are active in improving the community. Women, she said, are more apt to be concerned with issues such as youth and education, while men are more inclined to issues such as housing and renovations.
Differences between men and women are just as pronounced in the workplace as in the community, she said.
"Men dont have to ask themselves how they are going to dress to go to work and be taken seriously," Betts said.
She said gender is so ingrained in everyday life that it is difficult to see the limitations gender associations place on individuals.
"Society has built-in prejudices about the competency levels in certain groups," Betts said.
Betts would like to see that change, so she plans to continue researching and attempting to raise the awareness level of the public about these biases. But, she said, change wont happen overnight.
"Sometimes women will take the path of least resistance because its difficult to change peoples expectations of you," she said.
Betts said although women have broken into the fields of law and medicine, she hopes they will receive more encouragement to pursue careers in science and engineering, as well.
name: Phyllis G. Betts
date of birth: May 18, 1950
place of birth: Springfield, Ill.
education: Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, 1972
University of Chicago, 1974
University of Chicago, 1978
hobbies: reading murder mysteries and courtroom dramas,
loves animals has three dogs and three cats