Business School Just for Women

MBA program at Simmons College offers training and confidence to female executives

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SIMMONS Graduate School of Management - the only United States business school exclusively for women - is located on the premises of a former finishing school in Boston's Back Bay.

Instead of learning how to be executives' wives, however, today's students are training for executive positions of their own.

The Simmons master of business administration (MBA) program was founded in 1974 by Margaret Hennig and Anne Jardim, former Harvard Business School faculty members and co-authors of "The Managerial Woman," a 1976 bestseller. They serve as joint deans of the school.

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Dr. Hennig recalls the frustrations that drove them to leave the male-dominated culture of Harvard. None of the school's teaching cases showed a woman performing successfully in a senior position. "There were cases in which the woman was always the problem," Hennig says. "What do you do when Agatha Sue has had her desk at this window for 19 years, and you have to move her? She refuses to move. Problem."

And there were less subtle inequities. "The classroom building, which is almost a block long and four stories high, had one ladies' room and seven men's rooms," Hennig remembers.

When their pleas for change at Harvard went unheard, Hennig and Jardim decided to start a new graduate business program designed specifically for women. They took the idea to Simmons College, a private women's college in Boston.

In the feminist heyday of the early '70s, the Simmons MBA program was greeted enthusiastically. Donations came from both the radical, new Ms. magazine and the conservative, old-line Business and Professional Women's Foundation. "The spread [of support] was unbelievable," recalls Jardim.

During the past two decades, the Simmons program has developed a strong reputation in New England. But it is relatively unknown elsewhere.

"Within the business-school world they ask: Don't people who are interested in gender studies belong in sociology or psychology and not in business schools?" says James Schmotter, dean of Lehigh University's College of Business and Economics in Bethlehem, Pa. "That has probably led to an undervaluing of Simmons."

While fewer women are enrolling in business schools nationwide, however, enrollment at Simmons is at an all-time high. Currently, 47 women are enrolled in the full-time, one-year program, and 200 are on the part-time, two-to-three-year track.

Simmons offers all the quantitative courses of a typical MBA program. From the beginning, however, the two deans taught courses drawing from their research in organizational management and gender differences.

`THE distinguishing factor here has to do with the behavioral stream in the curriculum," Jardim says. "The behavioral courses take very clear account of the corporation as a masculine structure or hierarchy."

Like Harvard, the Simmons program relies heavily on the "case method" of instruction. But at Simmons, nearly every case includes women. "We use case after case after case on women, showing the implicit difference in what women are bringing to a male organization," Jardim says.

As women have made progress in the workplace, the Simmons program has adopted new goals. "Back then, we were trying to get women into middle management," Jardim says. "Now we're trying to get women out of middle management and into senior jobs. Middle management is the new ghetto for women."

The intensive, one-year program at Simmons appeals to many women who are interested in taking a brief sabbatical to jump-start their careers.

"The idea is to get in, get out, and get back to work," student Laurie Durnell says. One-year students endure long days of classes and weekend work sessions to earn the degree in a compressed time period. "You're always sweating and running," says another student, Laureen McVay.

Other women choose to continue working while earning the degree. Part-time student Paula Kelley is a manager for Gillette Company with 15 years of experience. "I had about a $9 million budget that I was handling, but I didn't feel overly confident that I could do what I needed to with it," Ms. Kelley says.

Although Simmons MBA students are all female, they may be the most diverse group of business students anywhere. They range in age from 24 to 55, with an average age of 35, and have an average of 10 years on the job. "We are focusing on women who really want to change where they are going, who want to take control of their careers," Jardim says.

Simmons has always been willing to admit more nontraditional students than other MBA programs do. About 20 percent do not have a bachelor's degree. Work experience, strong references, and a "pattern of growth" are more important at Simmons than undergraduate degrees, the deans say.

"Most MBA schools look at inputs, what the person comes with, the kinds of credentials they have already achieved," Jardim says. "We're looking at outcomes - what can that person go on to do with our degree?"

THE approach to teaching is different at Simmons also. "When we were at Harvard, it was teaching by humiliation," Hennig says.

At Simmons, "you're competing in a positive way because you're trying to develop yourself," Ms. McVay says. "You're not trying to squash the other person."

Marketing Prof. Deborah Marlino taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass., for five years before coming to Simmons four years ago. Although the material she teaches is the same, Dr. Marlino says the Simmons curriculum has a different emphasis. "It has more of a behavioral bent, with heavy emphasis on group work and understanding corporate culture."

The Simmons MBA program has come of age with the women's movement. If women continue to achieve equality with men in the workplace, will there come a time when the Simmons program will no longer be necessary?

"As long as the traditional business schools stay masculine in their orientation, this school will be needed," Jardim responds. "Until there are places where women can walk in absolutely equal and learn what they have a right to learn and know about themselves ... we are not obsolete. We are cutting edge."

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