Women's College Leaders from Five Continents
Vow to Collaborate on "Unfinished Agenda": Educating Women
in Leadership, Science and Technology
NORTHAMPTON and SOUTH HADLEY,
Mass. -- Women are urgently needed as leaders in politics,
government and business, as well as science and technology.
That is the conclusion of a historic first meeting of heads
of 29 foremost women's colleges and universities from five
continents who gathered in Western Massachusetts from June
2 to 4. At a conference titled "Women's Education Worldwide
2004: The Unfinished Agenda," presidents and academic
deans vowed to increase collaboration in their essential
mission of preparing women for leadership roles. The conference
was co-sponsored by Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges.
affirmed the key role of women-centered education in producing
leaders, both professionally and as agents of social change.
In recognition of the collective power of their institutions,
conference participants took steps to form a larger alliance
that will speak up for the importance of women's education
worldwide and become an international force for women's
"Advancing educational opportunities for
women across all ethnic, racial, age and socio-economic groups
within each of our countries and across the world continues
to be the great unfinished agenda of the 21st century," said
Joanne Creighton, president of Mount Holyoke College. "Our
goal is to encourage our students to take their place along
with men in the highest reaches of the professions, society
and government," she added. "At the same time,
we believe that, by working together, women's institutions
can encourage progress on other crucial social issues, including
social justice and expanding economic opportunities for women."
College President Carol T. Christ stressed the importance
of preparing students broadly for leadership in the contemporary
world, and also emphasized the need to produce women leaders
in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology.
"In countries without free and compulsory primary education,
gender inequities manifest themselves as early as the primary
school level, making women extremely vulnerable to poverty
and deteriorating economic conditions," said Christ. "As
educators, many of us are particularly concerned with the
under-representation of women in science and engineering,
critical professions in today's world and ones in which women
have made much less progress than we would like to see."
Haifa Jamal Allail, dean of
Effat College in Saudi Arabia, said that women at her college "think about what women
lack with respect to the political arena." She affirmed
her institution's commitment to a deeper discussion about
preparing women for leadership in political and economic
spheres. The president of Sookmyung Women's University in
Korea, Kyungsook Lee, spoke of her institution's successful
use of the Internet to reach women who would otherwise not
have access to education.
Keynote speaker Amartya Sen,
winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and Lamont University
Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, encouraged the
conference to think of women's education both broadly and
politically. Basic education for women holds the potential
for "facilitating radical
social and economic changes that are so badly needed in our
problem-ridden world," he said. He presented empirical
evidence that basic literacy and numeracy enable women to
find their voice in the family, village and beyond, as well
as to substantially improve their own quality of life and
that of their children.
Education increases women's
potential to become agents for social change, he noted, and
that is what has drawn fire from conservatives and sectarians
in all parts of the world who increasingly seek to deny women
access to education or restrict its content.
participating in the conference ranged from those with long
histories, such as several Asian colleges and leading American
women's colleges of the historic "Seven
Sisters," to some that are less than a decade old. One,
Asian University for Women, is still in the planning stages.
Effat College was founded in 1999 and Kiriri Women's University
in Kenya is only two years old. Kiriri's vice-chancellor
Rosalind Mutua, said she wondered "Will we get there?" when
people spoke of their schools' origins over a century ago.
But she was encouraged after hearing others talk and realizing
that her institution, "the only secular women's university
in an area stretching from Sudan to Limpopo" (the northern
province of South Africa), faces many of the same problems
confronting well-established colleges.
The challenges that
women-only colleges face broadly reflect the circumstances
of their origins as well as their social contexts, said
Amrita Basu, director of the Five College Women's Studies
Research Center, in summarizing the conference. Those located
in countries where gender segregation is widely approved
or mandated may struggle to offer a full range of quality
courses comparable to what would be found in universities
with male students. In societies where co-ed higher education
is the norm, single-sex institutions are often stigmatized
and must repeatedly justify their existence.
Basu said she
was heartened by the response of the institutions present
to the difficulties of offering single-sex education in a
globalizing world which, ironically, presents "greater
obstacles to women's education than in the past." Among
the obstacles are active suppression as well as a lack of
state and financial support, along with corporate aid which
is often limited to information technology areas and does
not extend into "broader-based forms of liberal education." Despite
this, she noted, officials of the colleges and universities
represented at the conference stressed "the value of
broad-based, open-ended communication," emphasized the
importance of developing women's voices and demonstrated "an
underlying recognition that the goals of women's education
are the goals of creating a more tolerant, pluralist world."
According to Mount Holyoke dean
of faculty Donal O'Shea, the three-day meeting represents
a first step in building cooperation and exchanges among
institutions worldwide. "Not
only is international collaboration essential to pushing
ahead on a global agenda of educating women," he said, "but
partnership and communication will open countless opportunities
for our students to understand the multifaceted complexities
of this new, global century."
Many of the participants testified
to obstacles limiting women's participation in scientific
fields, both educationally and professionally. Keynote speaker
Sheila Widnall, Institute Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former secretary
of the U.S. Air Force, said that although there have been
increases in the number of women studying, teaching and practicing
engineering in recent years, "never has there been such a need" for
their greater involvement "in a world of resource constraints
and environmental challenges." She called upon women
to take roles both as specialists and integrators, but agreed
with Elizabeth Boylan of Barnard College that women risk
sacrificing their careers if they become interdisciplinary
integrators before they have proven themselves as specialists.
of the institutions participating in the conference have
strong science and technology programs where, they reported,
their students thrive in a women-only setting. The campus
of Korea's Sookmyung Women's University is a testing ground
for the latest wireless technology, according to the president.
Its students, who are definitely "not afraid of machines," have
become adept at operating in a sophisticated electronic environment,
she said. Smith College provost and dean of the faculty Susan
Bourque said that women scientists and engineers trained
in science programs that are embedded in the liberal arts
bring a broader perspective to their professions. "We
know that in all the scientific fields there are critical
ethical and scientific issues [where] we want women's voices
at the table, a variety of women's voices, and even women
leading that conversation," she said.
also took up a range of issues that are common to all,
with participants sharing strategies and solutions for recruiting
talented students from a variety of social and ethnic groups,
attracting women to the sciences, raising funds, awarding
financial aid and meeting the needs of older students and
those with family responsibilities.
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