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The business case for women's colleges

The business case for women's colleges
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Imagine you’re leading a start-up about to make a pitch to Goldman Sachs, the biggest underwriter of IPOs, and you face this dilemma: The company’s new policy requires potential clients to have at least one board candidate from a marginalized group, and it has particularly emphasized a “focus on women.” Warren Buffett and money-management firms such as BlackRock and State Street also have stated they want to see more board diversity.

Executives can have all the intent and desire they want, but if America lacks a support system and pipeline for women’s leadership, these initiatives will falter.

Given the billions our country invests in higher education, one could assume that this is an issue taken seriously by college leaders. After all, the country looks to higher ed for a myriad of needs, from educating highly sought-after web developers to fielding winning athletic teams.

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At the women’s college I lead, we’ve taken on this challenge by creating a Women’s Leadership Core, where students learn practical, collaborative, change-making skills that prepare them for exactly the type of people corporate America wants to see on boards.

We’re asking these questions: How does gender impact leadership? What differentiates women leaders? How does our culture impact women’s leadership? We think others should ask them as well because the search for answers is empowering. 

Research continues to show that women’s colleges prepare their students in ways that co-ed institutions have been unable to. For example, graduates from women’s colleges report their college was extremely or very effective in helping prepare them for their first job compared to those who went to public institutions (81 percent to 61 percent). Students from women’s colleges are almost twice as likely to complete a graduate degree as a public university alumna. All of these outcomes help women achieve in the business world.

This need for diversity is even more acute as data show women occupy more jobs in the U.S. workforce than men. Conceivably, with more women in jobs, more of them should rise to leadership roles. In reality, a miniscule percentage of women oversee the country’s top 3,000 companies; they’re also missing from the financial jobs that lead to the CEO role.

Given this situation, it’s shocking that women’s colleges continue to face so many questions about their intrinsic value. A woman’s college, by its very nature and history, is focused on lifting females in positive and safe ways.

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Our students have benefited beyond reading and studying about women making a difference; they’ve seen it in action. Five years ago the alumnae-led group, Saving Sweet Briar, successfully negotiated an agreement to keep our Virginia college open under new leadership. These alumnae refused to back down from misguided ideas that Sweet Briar’s time had passed; they raised the millions to keep the college open and have continued to stay involved. This story is now part of our history and one that today’s students embrace, understand and apply in their professional lives.

Yet again, as we mark Women’s History Month in March, as well as the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote, the questions about women’s colleges persist.

Why? Could it be that the post-secondary sector itself suffers from the same challenges that business does? In fact, the American Council on Education (ACE) reports that “the percentage of women college presidents has slowly increased over the last 30 years. However, women remain underrepresented and typically follow different paths to the presidency than men.” The most recent ACE report showed only 1.8 percent of all college presidents were Asian-American women. We can’t expert higher ed to fix a business diversity problem if it suffers from the same challenge.

If we listened to the so-called “experts,” women’s colleges probably would close for good and their missions would disappear. And then other consultants would appear a few years later to propose a radical idea — that higher ed needs to create incubators focused on women’s leadership, akin to women’s colleges.

Let’s save ourselves from that tragic, misguided journey. Women’s liberal arts colleges work and provide a strong return on investment. Now’s the time to ask more of them, not less.

Meredith Woo is president of Sweet Briar College in Virginia. Prior to joining Sweet Briar, she was the Buckner W. Clay Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia.