Annual MOSAIC conference celebrates "Milestones"

“The more we talk, the less we will have problems,” said famed sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer in the keynote address that kicked off the 2006 MOSAIC conference yesterday. Though referring to sexual problems, her advice can be applied to all the topics that Carnegie Mellon’s annual gender issues conference brought to the forefront.

This year’s event was designed to to appeal to a more diverse audience by offering programs with a gender-related spin on a wider variety of topics — from female activism to social security, dieting, dating, drama, health care, and the Great Depression.

“[The conference’s goal was] to get people thinking about gender as it applies to our lives,” said Becca Steinberg, a senior technical writing major and gender issues intern. The conference changed its focus last year from women’s issues to gender issues to reach more groups on campus.

“People don’t just want the same old second-wave feminist rhetoric,” Steinberg said. “We want to focus on issues that haven’t been addressed before that affect a larger proportion of the campus community.”
This year’s theme was “Milestones” to commemorate the 10th anniversary of MOSAIC and the 100th anniversary of Margaret Morrison Carnegie College.

Westheimer began the program by sharing the milestones in her own life. Born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Germany, she was sent to a school in Switzerland as a child to escape the Holocaust.

After she lived on a kibbutz in Palestine, taught kindergarten in Jerusalem, trained to be a sniper in what is now the Israeli Defense Force, and earned a degree in psychology in Paris, she came to the United States on a scholarship for European immigrants from the New School for Social Research in New York. Upon earning a masters degree in sociology, Westheimer worked in public health at Columbia University.

But it was a job at a New York Planned Parenthood that launched her interest in sex.

“[I thought] there is something drastically wrong with these people. All they talk about is sex,” she recalled. “They don’t talk about literature, or research — not even the weather. After 48 hours I thought, ‘What an interesting topic.’ ”

During her keynote address, Westheimer imparted her views on abortion. “From where I stand, abortion must remain legal, not as a contraceptive, but if there is a contraceptive failure,” she said.

Though being largely known as a sexually progressive “sexpert,” Westheimer discussed abstinence. “[Abstinence is] not just for the orthodox. Anyone who wants to remain abstinent until marriage should,” she said.

Westheimer derived the bulk of her advice from her hardships as a child and successes as an adult.
“When an opportunity is presented, take a risk,” she said. “Stand up and be counted.”

Westheimer was confident that Carnegie Mellon students were up to the task. “Carnegie Mellon is a big name. You are at a fantastic university. I would never expect you to follow anyone else’s ideas,” she said.

Following Westheimer’s keynote, she held a question-and-answer session with participants.

“There is no question that what has changed is that women are being educated,” she answered when asked about the change she has seen in gender issues.

In addition to scheduling Westheimer, the 27-member MOSAIC planning committee, chaired by junior social and decision sciences major Jamie Edwards, designed a series of panels and workshops to encourage participants to take an active interest in gender issues.

In “Pittsburgh Pacesetters,” three female Pittsburghers shared their roles in contributing to the growth of the city, while another three women shared their professional experiences in “Generation XX: Women in Male-Dominated Fields.”

Other panels focused less on gender and more on bringing people of all genders, sexual orientations, religions, and ethnicities together. “Imaginary Home-lives” discussed the comfort in keeping a religious or ethnic identity, especially to first- and second-generation immigrants.

“New Milestones: Crafting the Nation’s First LGBT Public Health Certificate Program” discussed the advantages of developing such a program, while “Who Wears the Pants? A Look at the Terms, Rules, and Culture of Modern Dating” took a lighter tone with its discussion of traditional gender-specific roles or rules in the dating world.

Steinberg emphasized the importance of involving community members from as many demographics as possible — from the alumnae of Margaret Morrison College to the third- to fifth-grade girls who came with presenter Lindsay Hyde. Hyde was the facilitator of the “I Wanna Be a Super (Role) Model: Women and Mentorship” panel and is the founder and director of Strong Women, Strong Girls, a not-for-profit organization that mentors girls and young women. The girls decorated T-shirts with the help of Delta Delta Delta sorority members.

Alumnae from Margaret Morrison College — the all-women college that closed in 1973 when Carnegie Mellon became co-ed — served on the conference’s planning committee and attested to the change in the role of women from their own college experiences.

“We were not front and center in all disciplines, but [female students today] are totally integrated,” said Toni Ungaretti, class of 1970. “There are no bounds to their choices.”

Eileen McConomy, class of 1956, agreed, noting the gender gap in her academic experience. “In my graduating class, there was one woman engineer,” she said.

Gretchen Lankford, class of 1943 and founder of Carnegie Mellon’s Academy of Lifelong Learning, shared her experience as a woman in a predominantely male-populated field at Carnegie Tech.
“I wanted to be an engineer, but I couldn’t matriculate into the engineering department, so I got a degree in general studies,” she said.

Current college students had a different take on the subject.

“[MOSAIC is] important at our school because [Carnegie Mellon] is male-dominated,” said Ryan Chin, a junior economics major.

Steinberg hopes that the female as well as the male populations will benefit from the conference.

“I’d like to see people thinking that gender issues affect everyone, no matter what your gender, and looking at the difference between Margaret Morrison and us and seeing how far we’ve come and where we’re going.”