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For Women, No Straight Road To Success


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up: It is April, which means along with April showers, National Poetry Month; and we will be asking you, once again, to contribute - if you would like - by tweeting us your original poems in 140 characters or less. We are going to kick it off with our curator, Holly Bass, in just a minute.

But first, there's a big gathering in Boston today. Thousands of professional women are getting together - starting today - at Simmons College for the school's 34th annual leadership conference. This year's theme is Women of Influence, and one of those women is Helen Drinan, who is the president of the all-women's liberal arts school.

President Drinan has had a very interesting career before she arrived at Simmons. She held a number of top executive positions in human resources. Before that, she was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines, back in the 1970s; and might we add that she is also married, with three grown children and six grandchildren. And in this period when there's so much conversation about women and careers and choices, we thought this would be a good time to speak with her about her career and the conference.

So President Drinan, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

HELEN DRINAN: Thank you, Michel. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: You know, it is interesting that this conference, once again, is taking place at a time when this whole question of women and leadership arises again. Why do you think there's so much talk about women in leadership roles? I mean, on the one hand, you know, we've had women as the vice presidential nominee twice from each major party. We have a woman come very close to being the presidential nominee. We have a number of women on - CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. And yet it still seems very much kind of a matter in flux, if you agree with my estimation there. Why do you think that is?

DRINAN: We really have watched now, about 40 years of women taking a more active role in all industries, all institutions, all kinds of leadership in the country. And in that period, I think enormous progress has been made. But we're at a place now where people are reflecting on whether or not we've stalled and, of course, you have some people who say, enough progress has been made. Just leave it alone.

So I think that is causing a lot of reflection across a lot of communities of thinking. I do also feel that work like Sheryl Sandberg's recent book, "Lean In," provokes active, high level, visible conversation and I think that's a very good thing.

MARTIN: She clearly is of the view that women's progress has stalled, particularly in business. I mean, despite the fact that there's a record number of women leading Fortune 500 companies and the first black woman, for example. Do you think progress has stalled?

DRINAN: I do think progress has stalled. I do think there are some natural reasons for that. I don't think that progress goes at the same pace for year after year after year. We were fortunate enough at Simmons to have a visit from Gloria Steinem and Gloria reminded us that movements - and certainly feminism is a movement - take 100 years or more to really stick, to really have results that everyone can see and understand to be totally established. And looked at in that light, we're not even halfway.

So I think that's a very healthy way to think about this, but I also think we have to be careful thinking about what it is we think is the end game, if you will. Sheryl Sandberg talks about equality that would mean half the houses are run by men and half the organizations are run by women. That's, I'm sure, a little bit of writer's exaggeration, if you will, 'cause I don't think we're ever going to see that kind of perfect equality. I think we're in a great place. I think we've made good progress, but I think we have many obstacles we have to work on.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that because Sheryl - the theme of Sheryl Sandberg's book, "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead," which as you noted has sparked a lot of conversation about this. Really, she seems to imply that one of the big impediments to women's success is women themselves. I mean, she says that women need to really kind of go for it and not edit themselves or tamper their own ambitions, especially if they want to be wives and mothers, as well as lead in business.

A lot of people really disagree with that. I mean, they think that it's more - the environment itself is hostile to women. You've written about this. You had an experience. You were in a number - as I mentioned, you had a number of executive positions before you arrived at Simmons and one of them was in the banking industry and you talked about the fact that you had a boss at one point who was abusive, emotionally and verbally. He made disparaging remarks...


MARTIN: ...about your appearance, your ethnicity, your religious background.

DRINAN: That was a very challenging experience in my professional life. I was relatively junior in the organization at the time. The power structure of the organization is such that you will never win that kind of a battle if you make it a public pitched battle.

I reached out to the person that I thought was the best able to solve the problem, who was my boss' boss and I talked to him very straightforwardly about what was occurring and I knew that was a roll of the dice, but it was the only way to go, 'cause unless it was clear to the top of the house what was going on, I was going to struggle with this and ultimately be caught in a trap if I didn't do that.

What happened is that an agreement was made that we would basically put this event aside, that I would be permitted to proceed with my work and so would this gentleman but that there would be no more of this kind of event and, if there were, it would be the end of his job. And he got the message and he was gone within six months and I went on to replace my difficult boss as the first executive woman in that financial institution's history. So, it worked out OK.

MARTIN: What do you think is the message there?

DRINAN: I think we have to remember progress is not a linear thing. You get a big surge forward, then you kind of settle and then maybe you even go back a little bit and then you hit another big surge forward. It's not linear.

I think two things. Number one, I had a conviction that I needed that job, not just to support my family, because at the time I was doing that, but also because if I missed that particular step in my career it was going to be deleterious to my recovering and moving up and forward. And I really did everything I could to salvage the outcome.

Now, it's good going into it that I knew I was right, but right doesn't always win. On the other hand, I needed that success in that particular time and I was very strategic about thinking about how to protect it, and I think that's critical.

MARTIN: One of the other things that I think is interesting about your career is that you are very public about the times that you have failed. In fact, you wrote about the - that you actually tried three times...


MARTIN: ...to join the Foreign Service.

DRINAN: Right.

MARTIN: This is a position people may forget. It requires a written exam given only once a year followed by an oral exam, and for three years running you tried and three years running you failed.

DRINAN: That's right.

MARTIN: I'm so curious, like, why you've decided to let people know about this. I think a lot of people would have just had amnesia about this and think, that never happened.


DRINAN: Well, you know, that's part of why, especially since I've come to be the president of Simmons and I spend my time with so many young women, it is so important that those of us who have had these experiences and lived through them and can reflect back on them that we share the stories because that gives confidence to our young women who are coming up behind us that it is going to be a tough time some of the time and that still you can keep moving forward.

And, frankly, the wonderful thing about this story is that 30 years later, I wasn't the only one who had that experience, and the largest class action suit in the U.S. government was settled for discrimination against women who are applicants to the Foreign Service. So that's a sort of full-circle story that says it might not be fair, but you can't end your life over that and, in the end, there is some fairness and justice in this world.

MARTIN: Speaking of Simmons - and if you're just joining us, I'm speaking with the president of Simmons College, Helen Drinan. They are kicking off their annual leadership conference today. It's the 34th annual conference that's been held at Simmons. Why do you think it is that there are, what, 45 women's colleges remaining in the United States and only three for men? Why do you think that is?

DRINAN: Because men have as many opportunities as they want and women do not yet. A day may come when educating women for power and their own empowerment, in particular, as well as for leadership, is something that happens in coed environments. Today, that is a very, very big challenge for coed environments.

MARTIN: And yet, though, a lot of the data shows that women are attaining - what is it - for the first time, women have the majority or are getting the majority of advanced degrees and that...

DRINAN: Yes, they are.

MARTIN: ...they are the majority of undergraduates, as well, aren't they?

DRINAN: Yes, they are. Yes, they are.

MARTIN: So what do you think that says?

DRINAN: A lot of us as women have learned how to be extremely successful in school. We know how to do our assignments. We know how to participate in class. We know how to produce high caliber research. When you go into the workforce, that is necessary, but far from sufficient, and if you haven't developed the leadership skills, the personal confidence, the networking capability and, frankly, the ability to work as a member of a team - all those things that men tend to learn as a byproduct of their simple growing up - women are at a significant advantage when you put them in the competitive environment of a workplace.

MARTIN: Helen Drinan is the president of Simmons College. They are kicking off their 34th annual women's leadership conference today and she was kind enough to join us from NPR member station WBUR in Boston.

President Drinan, thank you so much for joining us. We hope you'll speak with us again.

DRINAN: We will, Michel. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.