Helping women in higher education help themselves

Simmons College President Helen Drinan says there’s still a long way to go toward equality
By: | Issue: November, 2014
October 24, 2014

Helen Drinan is nothing if not outspoken. The eighth president of Simmons College (Mass.) is a strong advocate of women’s rights, diversity and equal opportunity.

Coming from a corporate background where she often had to stand up for herself in a male-dominated environment, Drinan pulls no punches when pointing out higher education’s shortcomings in these areas. “There was so much in common with what’s going on in higher education today that I feel grateful that I’ve seen these problems before,” she says.

Drinan’s candor was on full display in the days following this interview when she announced to the college and to the world in a Boston Globe editorial that she was battling breast cancer.

“As the president of a women’s college, I have determined to use this evil challenge as an opportunity for good by sharing my experience broadly,” she wrote. “I hope that I can alert others to the risk of breast cancer and the hopeful power of early detection.”

Fifty years ago there were more than 200 women’s colleges in the country, now there are fewer than 50. Simmons is thriving. What’s the secret?

There is more than enough room in the United States for a group of distinctive, high-performing women’s colleges. My experience in business teaches me that as long as you are in a niche that has a market and you are distinctive in that niche, you can do very well.

And that’s the key—we have to be distinctive and we have to be high-performing. It’s not right for everyone, but for the right women it is an incredibly positive experience. So I’m very much in favor of preserving this alternative.

With that perspective, could the number of women’s colleges increase?

I don’t think we’re ever going to go back to hundreds, and that’s OK. I also don’t necessarily think that we need 4,000 colleges as we have today in this country. The lesson I learned in banking is when there are too many banks, few are very productive or efficient.

So you can look at American education and say we’ve not been particularly productive or efficient. There are way too many of us. And now we’re being called to account for that.

You come from a business background, having worked in both banking and healthcare. How does that inform how you approach your job today?

There are definitely things that I brought to this job. For example, I came from a corporation that was committed to diversity in the workplace, not just from a moral perspective, but because it made business sense.

Our customers were as diverse as you could possibly imagine, so for us to have a workforce that our customers didn’t recognize when they walked in didn’t help our business. We learned that lesson some 30 years ago.

In higher education I don’t think that lesson has been as well learned. Higher ed has been relatively late to the party in terms of talking about diversity and inclusion as a workforce issue. That means the faculty at all levels as well as the staff.

There’s a lot of work to do to ensure that when our students arrive on campus, they see people like themselves in sufficiently large numbers that they feel comfortable.

Speaking of diversity, Simmons recently admitted a couple of transgender students, after another women’s college denied them. Was there pushback from your board or from students?

No pushback at all. If anything, it fostered more pride in the institution. Honestly, I think sometimes the fear of consequences appears to be so great that we really hold on to concerns far longer than we need to.

The admission of transgender students in women’s colleges is less of an issue than it has been made out to be. We’re simply admitting people who see their life through a woman’s point of view.

You often tell women that they must speak out and stand up for themselves.

I try to talk to them about it in a way that is encouraging and supporting, though. Nobody needs to hear horror tales about these workforce realities.

It is very much the case that today’s workforce is one that is built on the experience of men far more than built on the experience of women. So women still face a lot of challenges that many of them think have been solved when, in reality, they haven’t been solved. They’ve just become expressed in a more sophisticated fashion.

Let me get your thoughts on a phrase we hear often, especially in election years—is there a ‘war on women’?

Well, I do think that there’s no national collaboration on behalf of women. Maybe that’s a different way of saying it.

I know on both sides of the aisle people say, “If you aren’t supporting all the rights of women from a healthcare perspective, that’s part of the war on women,” or “If you aren’t supporting equal pay for equal work, that’s part of the war on women.” There are so many expressions of anti-feminism in our world.

But I like to think of it from the opposite perspective, and that is we have made tremendous progress. When I graduated from college, I had a teaching job. I did not know when I took the job that I would become pregnant, but I did.

I also didn’t know that I would be asked to leave my job if I were visibly pregnant in the classroom. And there was no law against my employer doing that. That was in 1969. Now, those days are long gone. But that’s not so terribly long ago in the life of a society.

But, speaking on behalf of men, we’ve made some progress, haven’t we?

But the kind of progress we need to make now is really in collaboration with men who are just as invested in equality for the genders as women are. If we had all of the high school principals, all of the college presidents, all of the CEOs of major American corporations, all of them understanding that the gross national product of the United States could be enormously increased if we had full participation of all capable women in our workforce, you think they’d want that?

Going back to what I said before about my experience in the corporate world, we were certainly trying to do the right thing from a moral point of view. But the business case was the compelling argument for having a diverse workforce.

I have to tell you, when we started actively engaging our gay, lesbian and transgender employees and it became known that we were a hospitable place for them to work, all of business benefited from a segment of the population that is one of the most active users of financial services in the country. Why would you not do that?

I know you encourage young women to pursue the STEM fields. Historically, girls start out with a strong interest in that, but by the time they reach high school it starts declining. And when they get into college it declines even further.

Everything you just said is true, although it’s interesting to note that the women’s colleges in the United States produce some of the highest rates of Ph.D.s in the hard sciences of all undergraduate institutions in the country, even the finest undergraduate institutions.

But clearly there are things going on for a young girl becoming a young woman that are in the social sphere of her life that are sending a message that science is not for girls. Some of that we know is the feeling of, “Well, I don’t see any girls doing science so I don’t think science is for me.”

What can be done to change that?

It’s not that girls aren’t smart enough to do science. It’s that not enough of them are motivated to try it.

We need to give them more lower-risk opportunities to find out what science is about and to think about whether they’d like it. There are a number of efforts under way.

For example, we have something in Boston called Science Club for Girls. It’s literally a club that girls can join to learn more about science. No grades, no tests, but really involved in going to places where science is done—corporations that do science, colleges that do science—and understanding about experimentation and new learning. I think those kinds of interventions are imperative, where girls are encouraged to see that this is what science is about.

I also think, frankly, that one of the big advantages of women’s colleges is that students are not competing with men. If you note, women who have moved into academic science have some of the most difficult times getting tenure and getting research visibility, because they are competing elbow to elbow with people who have no motivation whatsoever to help them succeed in these fields.

So having those four years as an undergraduate where people are really focused on your growth and development as a young scientist makes a huge difference.

Tim Goral is senior editor of UB.