For most of my life I knew Susan Madsen as simply a long-time friend of my parents. Her husband Greg went to engineering school with my dad over 30 years ago and they’ve stayed in touch through rounds of golf, long distance hikes, and ski trips. When my parents told me about a backyard dinner they had the Madsens recently, they mentioned some of Susan’s recent accomplishments. Curious, I began looking into her work and quickly saw she has instigated substantial awareness towards a topic meaningful to me: women and leadership. So I reached out to her via email and she graciously agreed to an interview; in retrospect, I see this may have been out of loyalty to my parents considering the demands on her time.
I found that Susan and I are both alumni of Brigham Young University and have both taught piano lessons, but we also share deep rooted convictions. Like Susan, I feel strongly about empowering and encouraging women to shine. Like Susan, I want to see more confident, influential women leaders. I learned that Susan has made a career out of these convictions so I am personally grateful for her work which is changing the world my young daughters will grow up in.
After this lengthy introduction, I’m sure you’re ready to hear more about what makes Susan so incredible (if you don’t already know her story). I am thrilled to tell you about our conversation and am certain you will walk away uplifted as I did.
What She’s Known For
(I should start with a disclaimer: this article is in no way a comprehensive list of the accomplishments of Susan, or Dr. Madsen as I should respectfully refer to her considering her degrees. Think of this as more of a summary of a few of her key contributions. With that said, here is a brief description of her more notable accomplishments and achievements.)
Over the years Dr. Madsen has formed many influential groups which have since “shifted to other people and are all still going strong.” She formed the Utah Women in Higher Education Network (UWHEN), the International Leadership Association’s (ILA) Women and Leadership Affinity Group, and the Academy of Human Resource Development’s Leadership Special Interest Group. Twice she chaired a global women and leadership conference which produced The Asilomar Declaration & Call to Action on Women and Leadership. In 2014 she organized and hosted a colloquium for 70 scholars from around the world, titled “Advancing Theories of Women and Leadership.”
Considering this, I’m obviously not the first to take note of Dr. Madsen’s excellence. As a Utah native myself, I was impressed that Susan was named one of the 2014 Fabulous Forty in Utah Valley Magazine and one of the 2013 “30 Women to Watch” in Utah Business Magazine. But throughout her career she has been the recipient of many other distinguished awards and honors. I believe this list speaks volumes about her influence:
- 2019 Utah Girl Scout Champion Award
- Utah Women in Higher Education Network’s 2018 Distinguished Service Award
- Envision Utah’s 2017 Common Good Award
- Laura Bierema Excellence in Critical HRD Award 2017
- 2016 Distinguished Alumni Award, College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota
- 2016 YWCA Utah Outstanding Achievement Award in Education
- Community Legacy Impact Award from People Helping People
- 2016 “Distinguished Woman of the Year” by the Wasatch Chapter of AAUW
- 2016 honoree of the Sundance Film Festival’s Utah Women’s Leadership Celebration
- 2014 “”omen and Leadership Scholar of the Year” for the International Leadership Association
- 2012 Salt Lake Chamber PathFinder Awardee
- Early Career Scholar Award from the Academy of Human Resource Development
- Utah Valley University’s “Civic Engaged Scholar of the Year”
- “Outstanding Civic Engagement Award” by Utah Campus Compact
- 2006 and 2015 Scholar of the Year Award for the Woodbury School of Business
Susan’s Family Life
Let’s dive into Susan’s family life to get a better idea of who she is. Susan married her husband Greg when she was 24 then started having children a few years later. She began her career teaching at Hillcrest Junior High in Murray, Utah for several years as a speech, drama, debate, and physical education teacher. As she was doing this and raising her four children with Greg, she decided to pursue her education which I will get into shortly.
She describes her family as a “big sports family.” Her experience teaching physical education made her the dream coach for her children’s soccer, basketball, baseball, and softball teams. Despite her busy schedule, she always made time to recreate with her family. They enjoy snowshoeing, golf, hiking, racquetball, soccer, basketball, ping pong, and water sports.
When we spoke, Susan told me her daughter was coming to visit that day and her love for her four children was apparent as she talked about them. Today they are young adults and have given her two grandchildren. Since they live fairly close, she makes it a point to see them at least once a month. She was clearly proud of how different but ambitious her children are: one is into film, another business, one nursing, and another all things computers. And she is actually coaching her husband Greg on his PhD dissertation, although he has his own committee. She explained that “he’s got a big chunk of his dissertation already written [but] we’re ready to have him done.”
How It All Got Started
When I asked her what choices led to her current success, Susan spoke of her family and education. As a child, Susan watched her father work hard to earn a master’s degree and then a doctorate. I’m sure he served as an example to her and planted the idea of college in her mind. And as the only girl in a family with six brothers, Susan’s interest in women’s issues “just kept cropping up through the years.”
Shortly after having children, Susan finished the first of what would become many degrees: a bachelor’s degree in Speech Communication Education with a minor in Physical Education from BYU. She went on to get a master’s degree in Teaching and Exercise Science/Fitness from Portland State University (with a 4.0 GPA!). Then she earned her doctoral degree at the University of Minnesota in Work, Community, and Family Education with a specialization in human resource development. Later she earned other degrees in exercise science/wellness and speech communication education.
It was during her studies that she developed an interest in women’s wellness. She eloquently said, “Education really guided me towards what I was going to do. I just stepped forward and got prepared through my education.” As Susan worked on her master’s thesis, she found herself writing on topics such as women and nutrition, women and cardiovascular health, women and osteoporosis, and pregnancy and exercise.
Then during her doctoral work, the University of Minnesota asked Susan to teach a class on work and family relationships; she speculates this was probably “because I was the only one that had a whole bunch of kids.” Eventually women’s issues shifted into leadership and she’s “been on that track ever since.”
Dr. Madsen’s Experience in Academia
Currently Dr. Madsen is the Inaugural Karen Haight Huntsman Endowed Professor of Leadership in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. She is also a visiting fellow at the Economics and Business School at the University of Zagreb (Croatia). What a busy schedule she must maintain to keep up with these positions!
As an accomplished professor of 30 years, Dr. Madsen has taught at many universities and colleges not just around the country but also around the world. In England she was a fellow at Ross-on-Wye and a distinguished fellow at Lancaster University. In her home state of Utah, she’s taught leadership and management at Utah Valley State College and Brigham Young University. And for eighteen years she was the Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership and Ethics in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University. She’s also been on the faculty at the University of Minnesota, Anoka-Ramsey Community College, Crafton Hills Community College, Loma Linda Medical University, and Portland Community College.
Tremendous research has accompanied Dr. Madsen’s academia. Among other topics, she has studied the development of prominent women leaders. In fact, on the day I talked to her she was interviewing Dr. Noelle Cockett, the president of Utah State University. But she’s also interviewed governors and international leaders. Her work, which again has taken place both locally and as far away as China, the Middle East, and Europe, has been well received to say the least. I learned she “has been featured in the U.S. News and World Report, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Parenting Magazine, Chronicle of Higher Education, The Washington Post, and Forbes.”
Her Written and Spoken Work
Dr. Madsen has written six books and countless articles, chapters, and reports, mainly about women and leadership. She is particularly proud of her latest book, The Handbook of Research on Gender and Leadership, which is a compilation of many important women’s issues.
She is also a renowned speaker across the globe. She’s presented in many settings, including the United Nations, the New York Times, the Argentina Parliament Palace, the House of Commons in England, the Lithuania President’s Palace, the U.S. State Department, and USAID.
What amazes me is that although she is a global thought leader, her work appeals to everyday people like you and me. Something she said that resonated with me for several days was the idea that lifting women also lifts men and families. In other words, empowering women spreads power to everyone. I confess that I spent considerable time perusing her articles and really enjoyed what I read. She makes some insightful points and I’m eager to read more. Her articles have compelling titles like: “A mother’s influence on her daughter’s body image,” “Motherhood teaches leadership”, and “We should encourage girls to play sports”. Recently she has also produced articles about how to cope with the pandemic, addressing topics such as working from home, finding growth during turbulent time, and “outreach during an outbreak”.
Efforts in Utah
One of the traits I admire most about Dr. Madsen is that she puts her power, influence, and leadership to work in her own community. She has truly been an agent of change as she’s worked to support Utah women seeking a higher education. As an example, the Utah Women and Education Initiative, which she created in 2009, is devoted to helping more women graduate from college. Furthermore, she collaborated with state government to create the Utah Women’s College Taskforce which called for change. She is also involved with quite a few important nonprofit and community boards in Utah such as: Envision Utah, Silicon Slopes, Real Women Run, United Way of Utah County, People Helping People, Better Days 2020, Utah Financial Empowerment Coalition, and the Women’s Leadership Institute.
I particularly love the energy and movement behind her efforts with the Utah Women & Leadership Project, which she founded in 2013 and still directs today. When we spoke of it, Susan said, “It’s what the state has needed and it’s made a big difference.” This group facilitates female leaders and celebrates the impact of Utah girls and women through several avenues, including 20-30 events a year. Additionally, they produce research relating to women’s issues and produce recommendations on how to improve women’s status in Utah. Her team puts out idea sheet handouts, infographics, podcasts, newsletters, speeches, and videos. What an effective way to spread such a critical message of female empowerment to countless people!
I highly recommend following Utah Women & Leadership Project on social media. As I mentioned, their content is so inspirational and full of practical tips on how to nurture women’s voices, confidence, and influence. For instance, they recently put together a list of movies which highlight fierce, resilient female protagonists who shatter barriers. The list has some you may recognize, like Hidden Figures or Akeelah and the Bee, and others that may be new to you, like The Eagle Huntress and The Breadwinner.
Reflections on Her Success
I asked Susan if she’d had a mentor to guide her along her path. As an influential woman, she is quickly becoming a hero of mine, so I wanted to know who she admired. Her response surprised me but made sense upon reflection: it was mostly the men in her universities or businesses who helped her. She said, “They just opened the doors and let me go. They helped me find the resources and didn’t slow me down.” It was heart-warming to consider the men who helped a woman succeed in fields traditionally dominated by other men.
I just have to take a tangent to mention a TED talk that came to my mind as we talked about what her work refers to as male-allies. In a TED talk titled “To challenge the status quo, find a ‘co-conspirator’,” Ipsita Dasgupta discusses the fact that we all need people, regardless of how smart we are. But unconventional people particularly need “co-conspirators” who “are willing to bend the rules — actually even break them sometimes — and challenge the status quo to stand beside someone who is going against societal norms.” I love this idea and feel that it applies to Dr. Madsen’s journey.
It also needs to be said that in addition to the supportive men around her, Susan’s character propelled her forward as well. Not only is she determined and hardworking, but also purpose driven. She explained that it was quite clear that it wasn’t just her bachelor’s degree that she needed. A spiritual woman, she felt it was laid out for her to continue her education and wanted to use her strengths to do what God needed her to do. So she made it happen.
Advice from Susan
I think that when many of us mothers read about Dr. Madsen and other renowned women, we wonder how they balance work with parenthood. What I gleaned from her is that it takes some creativity to juggle children and professional or educational pursuits but it is doable.
Susan explores this idea in several articles in a very memorable way. She asserts that women don’t need to view motherhood and work as “either/or” but rather use the powerful conjunction “and”. She promises other mothers wanting to continue their education that, “If you have little kids it works, but it’s a lot of work”. By asking family to help, trading services, and working while children were sleeping, she made it work!
If you can believe it, Susan completed her doctorate degree with four young children ranging from 3 to 11 years old at home. As a mother of children who are similar ages, I was impressed to hear this. “Early mornings was my trick,” she told me. (That trick seems to have become a habit; she had woken up at 2:45am to fit in everything she needed to do the day of our interview.) During her schooling, she also took advantage of nap times and school schedules, read throughout the day, and recruited the help of her family. Her husband watched the children in the evenings and her mother-in-law helped for several weeks during the summer so she could focus on her studies. And she traded piano lessons for babysitting for years, too.
But the number one piece of advice Susan would like to impart with other moms is “the importance of making sure you have a good bachelor’s degree.” I could see she was passionate about this topic as she went on to discuss the misconception that you don’t need a degree to be a parent. But she (and I) feel strongly that even if you’re not going to work for pay, there are significant links to being an educated parent. I took note of what she said next and I hope my readers will too: “More educated mothers prepare their children better for school, read more often to their children, and make healthier meals for their children.”
Susan also wants to help others understand how enriching it is to have another outlet when you are home full-time. She urges women everywhere to “find what you’re passionate about, use your voice in different ways in the community, and just be engaged.” This kind of involvement not only elevates your family but can help combat situational depression. You can still be there for your kids but will enjoy the satisfaction of knowing you have a good brain and are contributing to the world.
Can’t Do Without Items
Here at Mommy High Five, we traditionally ask our featured moms about their favorite products. As a book enthusiast, I appreciated Susan’s suggestion: she recommends all women read The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay. She claims that it is the concepts therein are “critical to really understand for your own confidence but also when raising girls.” But it’s not a message just for parents since the entire community really raises children.
As far as beauty products go, Susan loves all Mary Kay products but especially the Timewise line. The whole set, including the wash and moisturizer, are really good for her skin so she uses them regularly.
To Learn More
Researching Dr. Madsen quickly lead me to the realization that she is so much more than just an old friend of my parents! This epiphany made it more meaningful that she created time to talk with me, especially considering the many demands on her time. I was particularly humbled and grateful for the opportunity as I learned that she was a much more experienced interviewer and writer than I am. She was the picture of graciousness although I know she’s conversed with much more prominent, influential people than me.
Now that you know about the important work Dr. Madsen is engaged with, I’m sure you’ll want to keep up with her. I know that I plan to follow her work closely. For more information, check out her website. You will also benefit from following the Utah Women and Leadership Project.