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Women's colleges tap underutilized leadership talent

Posted by Marjorie Pritchard  February 28, 2012 01:57 PM

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By Helen Drinan

In a few short months, thousands of newly minted college graduates will leave Boston with dreams of future success. According to the U.S. Census, more than half of these students will be women; and according to the consulting firm McKinsey & Co, if we check back with these women in several years, they will not have attained the same level of success as their male counterparts.

Research by McKinsey and the women’s advocacy group Catalyst shows that women account for more than half of entry-level professionals in the largest American industrial corporations, but only 14 percent are on executive committees. Women represent just 3 percent of Fortune500 CEOs, and less than 15 percent of corporate executives at top companies worldwide. The sad truth is that only minimal progress has been made in the past few decades for women to make a significant break-through into leadership positions.

The reasons for this disparity are multifaceted, yet one of the strongest answers to this problem, I believe, can be found at some of America’s most enduring institutions: women’s colleges. As a graduate and president of a women’s college, I have no doubt that these educational outlets continue to play a vital role in educating and preparing women for leadership positions, helping our nation tap into an enormous segment of underutilized talent.

At women’s colleges, women are the ones receiving their university’s top prizes, prestigious graduate fellowships, or holding major campus-wide leadership roles. This experience rang true for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Wellesley graduate, who said her all-female college experience “guaranteed a focus on academic achievement and extracurricular leadership we might have missed at a coed college…Women not only ran all the student activities – from student government to newspaper to clubs – but we also felt freer to take risks, make mistakes and even fail in front of one another.”

In contrast, a recent study at an Ivy League college revealed that at 10 of the most prestigious co-educational institutions, women undergraduates were less likely to receive the university’s top prizes, prestigious graduate fellowships, or hold major campus-wide leadership roles, despite the fact that they outperformed their male counterparts in all academic achievement.

Not only do women’s colleges provide more opportunities, but they also provide students with strong female role models, particularly in fields traditionally dominated by men such as science, engineering, and mathematics. (At women's colleges, the majority of the presidents are women, and more than half of the faculty members are women.)

Among the more profound advantages of women’s colleges is that they encourage women to take risks during the course of their careers, without fear of failure. That failure can be a necessary part of the path to leadership. This is a liberating and revolutionary way to make life choices, and one women’s colleges have been promoting for years.

The success of women’s college graduates compels us to persevere and share with the world what we know about the power of women’s colleges in producing leaders like Clinton (Wellesley), Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (Trinity Washington University), Pulitzer Prize winning author and playwright Suzan Lori-Parks (Mount Holyoke College) and national broadcast journalist Gwen Ifill (Simmons College).

Certainly, a woman’s college isn’t for everyone; single-gender education has many detractors. A recent study by the journal Science magazine declared sex-segregation to be “misguided,” asserting there was no empirical evidence that boys and girls learn differently. Others will debate that unless you learn in a coed environment, you are unprepared to work with the opposite sex.

But why is it, that in spite of the fact that women now have access to the same institutions of higher learning as men, and outperform them in both academic achievement and completion rates, that this success is not translating into equal achievement in their careers?

Clearly something is not working. Women’s colleges have been educating women for leadership and achievement for years, and that work is needed more now than ever. If you influence a girl or woman in your life who aspires to leadership opportunities, do her a favor and suggest she attend a women’s college. Chances are, she will thank you later from a position of success.

Helen Drinan is president of Simmons College.

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