People Observer, Santa Barbara, USA

I think that in my mind I've been calling her Major Brenda. What a woman. From the moment we met for supper with her family. Some people ask you questions and nod and "aha, aha" in response. Not this lady. Follow up, quick and penetrating questions. You better be prepared to answers why and how come and "what made you decide to do that?". I was impressed with the conversation so much that the more I learned, the more I wanted to feature Major Brenda in the WOW Woman line up. Fabulous woman, lovely family, killer instincts and a flourishing career - a wow woman mix in my opinion.

1. Name.

Brenda N. Major

2. Where is your hometown?

Santa Barbara, California, USA

3. What is your profession/career/title/self label/designation?

Distinguished Professor, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of California, Santa Barbara.

4. What was the journey like to get where you are (career wise)? When was the Mental shift to start the journey?

My journey was serendipitous. When I graduated from the College of Wooster in 1972, job opportunities for young women were few and far between, and most were limited to a few specialized areas (nursing, teaching, secretarial). Even though I was an excellent student, the best job I could find post-graduation was being a secretary. I credit two people with changing my life, career wise. The first was my undergraduate adviser, Henry Loess. As I recall, he called me several months after I graduated to ask if I was interested in going to graduate school -- in two weeks! A paid teaching assistant position had opened up unexpectedly for a graduate student in the psychology department at Miami University of Ohio. The chair of that department had called my adviser for a recommendation to fill the position and he recommended me. I said YES even though I had never seen the school. That decision set me on the path to become a professor. I discovered I loved research and teaching and that I was good at both. But the fit between my research interests and those of the professors in the department wasn’t optimal. The second person who changed my career trajectory was my eventual Ph.D. adviser, Kay Deaux. She was a professor at Purdue University, and a prominent women in my field (one of the few at the time) when I first met her. She heard me speak about my research on women and achievement at a conference and after we discovered our mutual intellectual interests, she offered me the opportunity to work with her. I jumped at the chance, even though it involved moving schools and extending my time as a graduate student. That decision opened up lots of opportunities for me. I also benefitted from several wonderful senior colleagues who were terrific mentors to me at my first job as an Assistant Professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. So my journey, like that of many others I suspect, is a combination of hard work, aptitude for the work, good mentors and luck.

5. What did you study in school?

Social psychology. In case you are wondering what that is, it is the scientific study of how the thoughts, feelings and behavior of individuals are shaped by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others. It is a fascinating and broad field and I’ve never tired of it, even though I’ve been working in the field for almost 40 years. I’ve conducted research on lots of different topics over the years as a social psychologist– women and achievement, how stigma affects self-esteem, the psychological and physical effects of perceived discrimination, weight stigma, resilience, group identity, and perceptions of and reactions to diversity, to name just a few topics. Just before the 2016 Presidential election, I published a paper on why White voters were going to vote for Trump. Sadly, I was right.

6. How is your life different from what you pictured at 20?

I never dreamed I would become a professor. I really had no idea what I wanted to do when I was 20. At that time, few young women did. I often think of my career as “accidental” given how I got into the field.

7. Biggest accomplishment since making the (physical/mental) move?

In my career? Getting tenure; being promoted to Distinguished Professor.

In my life? My kids. They are terrific and a great source of joy and pride.

8. What was biggest disappointment and plan to overcome it?

Although I have edited two books, I haven’t yet completed writing a book by myself, although I’ve started several.

The election of Donald Trump is also a huge disappointment. I’m going to get involved in the next election to try to make sure he doesn’t get elected again.

9. Advice for other women?

Pursue something you love and that you are good at. It sounds trite, but loving your work and feeling competent at it makes all the difference.

Work hard and go all in -- excellence takes persistence. Be assured that you CAN combine work and family successfully. I wouldn’t give up either.

10. Knowing what we know now in current political climate, can women be "all that we can be" in today's world? What is the way forward, as you see it for "feminist values"?

I think they can, even though it can be difficult. Although things are still not equal, there are many more job opportunities for women now than there were when I started out. And men are changing too, although more slowly. It helps to find a good partner who supports your career ambitions, isn’t threatened by your success, and really carries his or her weight at home.

11. Where in the world do you feel “tallest” (i.e. where is your happy place)?

Probably my happiest place is in nature – on a river, or in the mountains. Preferably with my family and dog.

12. What extra-curricular activities/hobbies are you most proud of? Why?

I like to re-do houses. I’ve turned several ugly ducklings into beautiful spaces. I also love dogs. I have a golden retriever now – my third.

13. What do you want to be when you grow up? Future goals/challenges?

I think I am grown up now! I am pretty happy with where I am at and what I’ve accomplished so far. I still want to write books. I’d also love to breed and raise puppies someday. And I think it would be fun to build a house from scratch.

14. Anything you'd do differently (if you had another go at life)?

Not much. I try to avoid engaging in “counterfactual thinking, i.e., thinking “IF ONLY I had done X…” It’s bad for mental health. I used to do that a lot, but I stopped. I feel incredibly fortunate to have both a successful career that I love and a wonderful husband and family.

15. What inspires you?

Being in nature. A good idea. Beauty.

16. What are you hopeful about?

I am hopeful that our nation and the world can survive Trump and repair the damage he is doing to the environment, healthcare, and the economy.

17. What are some ingredients to a good life?

A fulfilling job, a loving partner, children, a curious mind, good friends, good health.

18. What are you reading now? (what books do you gift most and what are your favourite reads?)

I just finished A Man Called Ove and loved it. Some of my favorite books that I’ve read and gifted include The Handmaid’s Tale; Boys and the Boat; Water for Elephants; and Prince of Tides. I also love the entire Harry Potter series! On the nonfiction front, several books that I have liked and gifted to my students recently include Outliers by Malcom Gladwell, Mindset by Carol Dweck, and The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. I also recently read Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Hochschild, which was helpful in understanding the Trump election.

19. Who is a “WOW Woman” in your life who inspires you (and why)?

I think Sheryl Sandberg is inspiring. She has been incredibly successful in multiple domains and is a change-maker in her approach to work and life.

20. Where can others find you/your work (links to websites, blogs, etc.)?

Work link
Self & Social Identity Lab link