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During the summer of 1986, five University of Idaho female faculty members attended a National Endowment for the Humanities conference. Beyond generating support for the humanities, these five women unexpectedly found support in each other to weather the many issues facing professional women. Throughout the following year, the group continued to converse, inviting more women into the meetings, sharing professional issues faced by females campus wide. Over time, casual coffee dates developed into a desire and motivation to organize on a grander scale.

Founded in 1987, Athena is an organization promoting and advancing support and opportunities for professional women at the University of Idaho. Independent from the University, a set of bylaws guide the organization, amended and adapted as fitting to meet current needs. Founding member Dr. Joan M. West stated that, “We were interested in creating a network… an organization that would support professional women on the campus.” Staff member Kay Keskinen highlighted “power in numbers” as critical to the group’s success, both in founding and continued existence. As the group formed, faculty, staff, and administrators conjoined, working together to address and shed light on universal women’s issues facing University employees. Early member Joanne Reece explained of her membership in the 1990s that, “I joined Athena because it was such a natural organization to promote women taking a greater role in their own careers.”

From inception, Athena has added a special and previously unspoken voice to the University of Idaho. Past Athena President Dr. Lynn Baird commented, “I perceive it to be critical to show that women’s leadership is a rare and unique flower in this institution.” To promote female leadership and networking across campus, Athena actively hosts programs and socials, leads information sessions and webinars, sends women to professional conferences, and produces scholarship on employment equality and the Chilly Climate in academia. Within itself, Athena offers leadership opportunities for women. Headed by a leadership board, the organization stresses shared responsibility and blended involvement of faculty, staff, and administrators, working to bridge gaps between career paths on campus. Athena also directs women into committees throughout the University, and funds a scholarship for promising students each year.

Athena strives to improve the professional lives of Vandal employees by monitoring department interactions, helping women network through outside professional resources, and offering friendship and support when needed. Dr. West also observed that, “There has been positive progress towards overcoming [many of the problems facing women]…but they’re still around…[T]he continued existence of organizations like Athena proves [that] point.” Building on a similar idea, Dr. Baird added that Athena “opens the door for those conversations.” Athena continuously dedicates itself to improving campus climate for female professionals, simultaneously increasing the presence of professional women within the University of Idaho.

— 2014 Athena Intern Megan Gehrke