The Compelling Imperative Of and For Women's Colleges

The College of Saint Catherine Commencement Address
Susan E. Lennon, Executive Director, Women's College Coalition, May 22, 2005

Commencement is a time of great celebration.  It is a celebration of your achievements here at the College of Saint Catherine – and because commencement marks not an end, but a beginning, a new time – it is a celebration of the path of your life ahead.

I am honored to be a part of your commencement celebration.  My first visit to the College of Saint Catherine was just a few weeks ago, just as spring was beginning to poke her head out all over campus. 

During the nine months I have been with the Women's College Coalition, I have had the opportunity to visit 17 of our 58 member women's colleges across the United States.  Feeling the pulse of each distinctive college has been an exhilarating, inspiring, and powerful experience.

What I want to talk with you about today is the compelling imperative of and for women's colleges – and the role the College of Saint Catherine has so intentionally, deliberately, and purposefully prepared you for as stewards of this imperative.

The College of Saint Catherine has been educating women for 100 years.  How terrific that your senior year has been her Centennial Celebration!

During these 100 years the world and the landscape of higher education have changed dramatically.  This is most especially true of the past 40 years – a time in which the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Movement, and Title IX, as well as changes in demographics and technology, have brought about rapid and complex social and economic change. 

The challenge of responding to this change has perhaps been most dramatic for women's colleges. 

Discussions about women's colleges all too often and too quickly deteriorate to a narrow and unfair focus on the decline in the number of women's colleges during the past forty years.  This is an irrefutable trend that reflects the reality of market forces.

We must shift the discussion to focus on the mission of women's colleges and how we effect that mission. 

French journalist Alphonse Karr once said:  “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”  Think about this in the context of women's colleges. 

What has remained constant as women's colleges have responded to change – by adapting, innovating, and transforming – and as we will continue to do as we respond to change – is the steadfast, resounding, and unequivocal commitment of the College of Saint Catherine, her sister women's colleges, and the Women's College Coalition to contemporary interpretations of our founding missions: the education and advancement of women. 

This is the unfinished agenda of the 21 st Century.  And this is the compelling imperative women's colleges must continue to meet, and the very reason why women's colleges are so important. 

Two years ago, at the Coalition's annual meeting, the president of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, Joanne Creighton, charged us to think broadly and boldly about “…advancing educational opportunities for women across all ethnic, racial, age, and socioeconomic groups, both in this country and in the world” and, President Creighton continued, to commit to the “even more pressing issue and…much larger agenda…of social justice for women…children and men – worldwide.”

Women comprise the majority in both colleges and the workplace in the United States today.  Yet gender imbalance remains: male thought and voice, action and outcome dominate. 

Let's look at the import of this imbalance from three perspectives: education, workplace, and community.

First, Education ^ top ^

Comments made earlier this year by Harvard president, Larry Summers, provoked and reignited dialogue about gender disparities in science.

During the past decade, there has been a significant increase in the number of studies that have found differences in the brain – and scientists are now better able to map the brain with some accuracy.  The challenge is what to do with this knowledge and how to apply it to the classroom, the workplace, and the community. 

Leonard Sax is a physician and psychologist, and author of “Why Gender Matters.” 

He believes that boys and girls are innately different and that our challenge is to create environments that reflect how brains mature so that differences don't become limitations and liabilities.  (And, I would argue, so that differences are valued as “advantages.”)    “If you ask a child to do something not developmentally appropriate for him,” says Sax, “he will fail…and develop an aversion to the subject.  By age 12, you will have girls who don't like science and boys who don't like reading.  The reason women are underrepresented in computer science and engineering” – as we all know – “is not because they can't do it.  It's because of the way they're taught.” 

The corollary is true for boys and the way they're taught reading and literature. 

Research conducted by Deborah Stipek, dean of education at Stanford University, found that by age 12 children have formed firm beliefs about the subjects in which they will excel and those in which they will fail. 

Regardless of one's aptitude, attitudes about success and failure make an enormous difference in outcome.  And when girls and boys, women and men, are shortchanged, we all lose.

Women's colleges have extraordinary track records of success in teaching math and the sciences: we graduate women in these disciplines at 1½ times the rate of coeducational schools.  Women's colleges and our women-centered pedagogies, curricula, and environments – including female role models and leadership opportunities – must take the lead as national models not only for the effective education of girls and women, but also to inform, shape, and influence gender-equitable environments in pK-12, and college and graduate school – what the American Association of University Women has so eloquently described as “taking coeducation seriously.”

In a recent Girls Inc. survey of 2,000 girls and boys in grades 3 through 12,

75% agreed that girls are under pressure to dress the right way;

63% agreed that girls are under pressure to please everyone; and

59% agreed that girls are told not to brag about things they do well.

How these influences shape the decisions that young women make about their futures should come as no surprise – including decisions about college, in which taking the female perspective into consideration is woefully absent.

The Workplace ^ top ^

As the landscape of higher education has changed, so too have women's roles in the workplace – in terms of occupations, positions, and labor force participation. 

After increasing for a number of years, labor force participation rates among college-educated women are now slipping.  The Center for Work-Life Policy has described the alarming trend of large numbers of highly qualified women who are dropping out of mainstream careers as “the hidden brain drain.”

Research conducted by the Center on nearly 2,500 highly qualified women – that is, women with graduate degrees, professional degrees, and high honors undergraduate degrees, between the ages of 28-40 and 41-55 – found that among this sample, 37% – over a third – leave the workplace at some point in their careers.  This rate increases to 43% among women who have children.  The major reason women cite in leaving the workplace is the difficulty of combining work in an increasingly competitive business world – with family obligations – for both children and aging relatives. 

To be sure, with the cost of housing, college education for their children, and health insurance, only a relatively privileged group of women have the option of dropping out.  For those who are able to leave, there are severe financial penalties, reentry problems, and a downsizing of ambitions.  We need to think broadly about the work/life variables and the consequences for women who do not have the option to leave the workplace.  Often, those women who are able to negotiate alternative arrangements with employers face stigmas against job sharing, reduced hour jobs, flexible hours, and telecommuting. 

While women currently hold almost 51% of managerial positions, they hold only about 16% of corporate officer positions, 10% of power titles such as CEO or COO, and about 5% of top earning jobs.  Most important, women account for only 5% of the corporate officers holding the key line jobs that make up the pipeline to top spots in most corporations.

The significance of the insidious side effect of both “brain drain” and the so very real glass ceiling is twofold. 

First, there are insufficient role models for women, especially for women in more junior positions and women in college and graduate school who are preparing for their future careers. 

Second, the pipeline – whether it's the pipeline for science and technology or for any other discipline or field – is not about a numbers game or better recruitment strategies in a supply side approach.  The pipeline is about a commitment to diversity of thought and the recruitment and retention of a high caliber talent pool that reflects the advantages of differences – in gender, race, ethnicity and age.  Drawing upon such a talent pool is imperative for a competitive advantage and position in the global economy. 

Cathy Minehan, President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Board of Boston, has said: “We need to look for new models, new ways of doing things that make it possible for high potential women and men to remain attached to the workforce when family or personal responsibilities demand time as well.  This may require confronting long held attitudes about work and how it is organized.”

As women's college alumnae, faculty, and trustees, we must help inform, influence and shape the new workplace.  And as someone whose path in life has not been a straight line between Point A and Point B, but rather a wonderfully rich and rewarding journey – what my family sometimes describes as eclectic – I will tell you that we must help inform, influence and shape the new workplace in all sectors – public, private, and nonprofit.

Finally, Community ^ top ^

Last summer, two of our member women's colleges hosted a conference entitled “Women's Education Worldwide: The Unfinished Agenda.”  In his keynote address, Amartya Sen, recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics for his contributions to welfare economics, asked the provocative question, “What's the Point of Women's Education?”  His response was, “There are few subjects that can match the social significance of women's education in the contemporary world.  Basic education for all, including for all women, can greatly help transform positively the…world in which we live… (by) facilitating social and economic changes that are so badly needed.”

In the words of Patricia McGuire, the president of Trinity University in Washington, DC, on whose campus the Coalition's office is located:  “Imagine a world in which women were denied the opportunity to learn broadly, where millions of women were unable to read or write, a world where women were disenfranchised, treated as property, denied a separate existence apart from men, a world without female role models to inspire the rising generations.  That was the world [the founders of our colleges] knew just a century ago.  That is the world that millions of girls and women inhabit today around the world. 

Little has changed in large parts of the globe.”

The 1991 National Literacy Act defines English literacy as:

"…an individual's ability to read, write and speak English, compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society, to achieve one's goals, and to develop one's knowledge and potential."

More than 51% of the adult population in the United States functions at the two lowest levels of literacy – that is, reading at or below a fifth-grade level.  This is far below the level needed to earn a living wage. 

Two years ago, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan reported that there are 900 million illiterates in the world today – and 2/3 thirds of them are women. 

Think about the correlations between illiteracy and the family, the workplace, socioeconomic status, health, crime, citizenship and human rights.  The ramifications of illiteracy are staggering and unconscionable.   

Secretary Annan said, “There is no tool for development more effective that the education of girls and women.”  Nobel Laureate Sen said, “Basic education is central to advancing the conditions of humanity in general and of women in particular.”

In this country, debates about the national budget incite battles about federal financial aid, threatening – once again – access to higher education, especially to private independent colleges such as Saint Catherine's and especially for need-based students. 

This threatens the richness that diversity brings to our college experience and widens the already large gap in levels of educational attainment for all Americans. 

And conditions for our sisters and their daughters and sons in many parts of the global community are horrific. 

The core values of women's colleges are based on social justice, equality, human dignity, and ensuring the power of educated women to continue to influence society.  Again the words of President McGuire: “We are the stewards of the dynamic and transformative force of learning, delivered in a focused way to those who need us most: women excluded from educational opportunity.  That's not different from what we've always done – but, oh, how different we are today and will be even more so in the future.”

Yes, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

The College of Saint Catherine exemplifies the import of the compelling imperative of and for women's colleges.  She has been deliberate, intentional, and purposeful in her commitment to you in all your diversity…as a whole person, as a woman, and as a student.

In the words of your classmate, Maren Delaney:

  It starts with a girl
Supported by a family
Connected with friends
Growing toward self
Who becomes a student
Enlightened by teachers
Shaped by cultures
Inspired by classmates
Who becomes a woman
Entering the world
Leading others
Influencing many.

As you go forth today from the College of Saint Catherine, continue to surround yourself with people and experiences that will engage and inspire you, that will challenge and support you to be bold, to take risks, and to set higher expectations for yourself – and for all of us.

Wherever the path of your life takes you… as alumnae of the College of Saint Catherine, as members of the community of alumnae of all women's colleges, as members of the workplace, communities, and families, take all that is your St. Kate's experience and go out there and make this world a better place in which to live.  St. Kate's has prepared you well to do this. 

In celebration of your commencement, I would like to paraphrase the words of Rainer Maria Rilke:

“Now let us welcome ‘a new time' – a new time full of things that have never been!”

My congratulations and very best wishes to you!