‘Key to success is determining what you really want’

Simmons College president shares her own history at Women’s History Month event

By Ellie Castano

UMass Medical School Communications

April 05, 2012
  Helen Drinan, Simmons College president, spoke at the recent Women's History Month event.

 Photo by Tim Dailey

In response to a question toward the end of her talk at the Women’s History Month event at UMass Medical School on Tuesday, April 3, featured speaker Helen Drinan quoted former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as saying, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” The question: “How are we sabotaging our own growth opportunities?”

Drinan, who is president of Simmons College, noted the importance of being supportive of other women in the workplace, and urged women not to apologize for being strong competitors and not to be deterred by failure.

When Drinan was just beginning her career after serving in the Peace Corps, she experienced a form of discrimination—unbeknownst to her—that would change her path and shape her career. Upon finishing her volunteer service in the Philippines in the early '70s, Drinan was inspired to pursue a career as a Foreign Service officer, but she was unable to successfully pass the Foreign Service exam despite several tries. As a result, she changed her career plans and went to business school, which led her to senior positions in major non-profit and for-profit companies and to her current role as president of one of the premiere all-women’s colleges in the country. What Drinan didn’t know at the time that she set her Foreign Service dreams aside, and what she wouldn’t learn until asked to join a class action in the ’90s, was that the Department of State was discriminating against women who were taking the Foreign Service exam.

Although Drinan was not the direct beneficiary of the successful class action suit, she is satisfied with the career path she ultimately chose. She urged the women in attendance to look for opportunities in unexpected places and to be strategic in making choices.

While at BankBoston, Drinan recognized that an assignment that seemed unattractive to a male colleague was actually a great opportunity for her to shine at something she was very good at and also provided her with the opportunity to interact with senior leaders on a regular basis. She credits this experience, which was arduous, as the key to her moving from a staff position to a leadership position, saying, “If you want to succeed in business, you must find a way to demonstrate that you understand the financial side of the business.”

Drinan reminded women in the audience that there are plenty of opportunities to be successful that don’t lead to top positions, saying, “One of the keys to success is determining what you really want and what you are willing to do to get it.” She urged women to be realistic, especially about striving for work-life balance. “If you want to be CEO of a major corporation, forget about work-life balance. It doesn’t exist at that level.” She also noted that her current job requires a great deal of her time and doing it well would not have been possible at an earlier stage in her life when she was raising her three children. “This is the perfect job for me at this stage of my life,” she said.

Drinan also touched on the important role single-sex education can have in a woman’s life because it provides a nurturing environment where women can practice being leaders and test new ideas without being judged prematurely. She compared single-sex education at all levels to the practice required for kids to become competitive in sports. Drinan also noted that women’s colleges, Simmons in particular, are naturally doing the things that other colleges and institutions are advised to do to fix inequities.

The Women’s History Month event was co-sponsored by the Professional Women’s Committee, the Women’s Faculty Committee and the Women’s Leadership Work Group. Chancellor Michael F. Collins provided a welcome to Drinan, whom he has known for many years, and Commonwealth Medicine Executive Vice Chancellor Joyce Murphy provided a brief introduction to Drinan, with whom she has also worked.

The format of the Women’s History Month event was an “engaged dialogue” in which Lamar Soutter Library Director Elaine Martin facilitated an interview with Drinan, asking questions that had been submitted by members of the sponsoring groups. The event concluded with questions from the audience facilitated by Clara Orlando, who is senior manager of diversity and equal opportunity for Commonwealth Medicine. Rebecca Lundquist, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry, provided closing remarks.

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