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June 9, 2004

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.

The group 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 advancement.

"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."

Smith 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.

The institutions 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.

Many 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.

The conference 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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