Cultivating the Female Talent Pool An Interview with Ruth Simmons

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Ruth Simmons.200x200
Dr. Ruth Simmons, President, Brown University

Ruth Simmons is currently the president of Brown University. Previously, she held administrative positions at the University of Southern California, Princeton University, and Spelman College before becoming the president of Smith College, the largest women's college in the United States.

Here, Dr. Simmons discusses what academia can teach us about supporting and retaining female talent.

What can businesses learn from academia about both supporting female advancement and implementing family-friendly work policies?

First of all, the academic world is very much a merit-based world. When it comes to merit-based environments, women tend to do well. When it comes to environments based on social or historical privilege, women tend to do less well.

Offering flexible time is key. In terms of family-friendly policies, it was decided in academia many years ago that the probationary period for faculty could be extended during childbearing years. Women were therefore able to reduce their work time during critical periods, and then adjust that time upward when they were able to. This eventually evolved into giving men family leave as well.

What advice would you give a company eager to attract and retain more female talent?

If you want to attract very talented women, the most important thing is to show evidence that there is no barrier to their success. Promote women to high levels within the company. That is more of a statement than anything else.

In the past decade, have you seen a shift in the types of fields that women are studying and going into?

Certainly. We now have reached a point where more than 50 percent of college-going students are female. The inevitable consequence is that we are nearing a balance in some of the fields that were not traditionally characterized as friendly to women, such as medicine, chemistry and engineering. Young women today don’t see those barriers. They pursue their interests regardless.

Meanwhile, we continue to look for ways to increase the number of women in technology because of where society is going. I created an engineering program while I was at Smith. It is a beacon to women who would like to identify themselves as engineers. It has acted to disprove the notion that women don’t belong in certain fields.

For women who are pursuing historically male jobs like those in finance, is it worth it? What is the price they must pay, and what is the pay-off?

I think there are certain pursuits that are just not for everybody. I don’t see -- in the foreseeable future – women rising up through the ranks in certain professions with great ease and in great numbers. Nevertheless, I think it’s important to do these jobs to disprove the notion that women can’t do them. In doing them, you open the door to other women.

What has been the most surprising lesson you have learned in your current job?

One always expects the work of a CEO or president to be challenging, but I may have miscalculated how difficult managing the diversity of needs and tasks and calls on your time is. It’s a constant struggle to manage all the demands on my time.

I always encourage people taking on a new, demanding position to take stock of what resources they can gather around them to support them – both in terms of their personal and professional responsibilities. There is not enough time, especially when you have many constituencies demanding time from you.

It is easy to sacrifice your personal time and your personal happiness to get the job done, but that would not be a good thing. So -- look out for the possibility that you could be overwhelmed by your position, and prepare for that possibility as thoughtfully as you can.

Ruth Simmons is a member of the Advisory Committee of The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Changes Everything.

Dr. Simmons spoke about What Happens When Women Run Things at The Women’s Conference 2009.

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  • An interesting and inspiring article. I wish I could have heard Ms Simmons speak about "What Happens When Women Run Things" - will the site run transcripts of the speakers' presentations?

    Posted by Daisy MacDonald, 29 October 2009.