Women, Leadership and Women's College

March 4th, 2014 | SMWC

By Lorrie Heber

SMWC Women in Leadership

During Women’s History Month in March, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College will continue its tradition of  “Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment.” Exemplary women abound worldwide and right here in our own hometowns. Despite the extraordinary contributions women have made throughout history, opportunities for women to rise up as leaders remain large.

Making up slightly more than 50 percent of the United States population, women occupy just 19 percent of seats in U.S. Congress. Between 30 and 40 percent of business school enrollees are women yet women occupy just 4.2 percent of the 2013 Fortune 500 top jobs. Women make up 60 percent of college graduates yet still earn just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Facebook CEO, Sheryl Sandberg has put these issues forward and generated considerable discussion with her recent book “Lean In.” One assertion is that women are socialized to be demure and defer to men in the halls power. That demureness begins early, amplifies in high school and extends to the college experience and into the workplace.

With the thorny, polarizing challenges of our world before us, the need for critical thinking, diversity of thought and a broader perspective has never been greater. The time is right for women to rise up and lead our governments, institutions and businesses.

“Female leadership brings not just new ideas but a totally new perspective and it becomes important to achieving solutions,” said Dottie King, president of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. “Women lead very differently. We’re consensus builders and consider factors that men don’t. I think we bring something new to the table. Men are more transactional; women are more transformational. We’re long-range thinkers.”

“Women have 360 degree thinking. Maybe genetically because we’re mothers we have to be everything rather than honed in on one mission,” said Cindy Hux Martin '78 president and chief executive officer of Hux Oil Corp and a member of the SMWC board of trustees.

“I don’t really believe in quotas or making things 50/50, but there aren’t enough of them (women leaders),” said King. “And there are a lot of internal and external factors for why there aren’t enough of them. But it’s obvious to me that women themselves aren’t aspiring as high as they could. We have a generation that’s grown complacent.”

Shattering complacency and developing women leaders is uniquely suited to the women’s college. Especially a women’s college like the Woods with its liberal arts foundation.

 “Our goal is to help create a well-rounded person, to develop problem solvers with critical thinking skills,” said Janet Clark, vice-president of academic affairs. “We start students out right off the bat with our general studies program called the Woods Core that has courses in critical thinking, communications, and leadership.”

Some have deemed the liberal arts curriculum irrelevant. “The liberal arts curriculm has never been more important,” said Clark. “We’re preparing students now for jobs that don’t yet exist. And employers tell us they need both job skills and critical thinking or ‘soft’ skills. Job skills will change and can be taught relatively quickly. Soft skills take time to develop.”

A recent “Women’s Colleges Comparative Alumnae Research Project” study by Hardwick-Day of women’s college graduates shows that women’s colleges create leaders, communicators and persuaders, develop critical skills for life and career, enable students to engage with top faculty and resources, and proves its value over a lifetime.

“A lot of women are silenced in a large co-ed environment. A women’s college provides a safer place to develop skills and to find your voice,” said Martin.

The keys to success in leadership development at the collegiate level include a high level of interaction between faculty and students, strong community and peer interactions inside and outside of the classroom, and a challenging, active classroom environment.

For Sherry Bube, ’14 music therapy major and president of the Student Senate, the Woods is “a nurturing, safe environment. Over time you take steps forward, finding confidence within yourself. You find that confident voice.”

In addition to finding her voice, Bube says that her collaboration and networking skills have been significantly built during her college career. “I was very independent and would try to do everything on my own. I’ve learned that, while I might be capable of doing something, I might not be the best person to be doing it. Acknowledging that fact and then reaching out to someone who could help was a big step in my development,” she said.

The smaller school environment also meant that she has to reach out beyond her own department to accomplish goals like putting on the annual Student Senate Leadership Summit. “In a larger school, I might have just stayed within my own department. Here I could reach across departments to get expertise from say the communications department to help promote the event. It’s taught me how to reach out and get beyond my comfort zone,” she said.

The list of female “firsts” and the number of national and international women leaders who are alumnae of women’s colleges is impressive. Women like Madeleine Albright, Pearl Buck, Rachel Carson, Hillary Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro, and Gwen Ifill are just a fraction of those who’ve made a significant impact on our world.

The question then is raised, do women with innate leadership abilities seek out the women’s college experience or do they come to a women’s college for other reasons and then find their leadership skills? The answer is yes, and no, and maybe a little of both.

“Leaders have the ability to think differently, to take risk. And choosing us is a risk. Only three percent of women will even make a visit here,” said King. In a recent Huffington Post Education guest blog, King cited the fears women have of a women-only environment. “Most people believe that choosing a single-gender college will mean that they will never have the chance to see, talk to or interact with students from co-educational experiences, especially men. Not true,” she wrote.

Of prospective students, “I think they know they want to make a difference in the world,” said Clark.

“We all possess leadership abilities. At the Woods you’re being presented with opportunities, you’re being called up. By the end of four years, they’re definitely developed,” said Bube.

Once women leave the safe, nurturing environment of the Woods, do their leadership skills hold? “Once you find your voice, you never lose it,” said Martin.

Students at women's colleges build strong, life-long relationships during their undergraduate years,” said King. “These relationships provide much more than social value... they provide a network of relationships that facilitate personal and career support and strengthen their desire to help their communities for a lifetime.

Opportunities for leadership in the world are abundant and doors are opening wider for women especially those who’ve honed leadership skills through education and mentoring.

“When the door gets cracked open just a little for us, we push the door open and step inside then we reach behind us to pull other women in along with us,” said King. 

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