Old Girls’ Network
Alumnae share their personal and professional stories during a first-time conference on campus
By Sally Atwood
Elisabeth drake ‘58, ScD ‘66, was one of 16 women who entered MIT as freshmen in 1954. About half of them lived in a dorm on Bay State Road in Boston; the others stayed at home. Living in the dorm and spending time together in the Margaret Cheney Room (a suite in Building 3 for the use of women students only) gave the women a sense of community that helped compensate for the alienation they felt at the predominantly male Institute, Drake told 200 alumnae and students at Hotel@MIT in April. Drake’s talk was part of the first MIT Women’s Leadership Conference, sponsored by the Alumni Association. Katharine Dexter McCormick, Class of 1904, also lent Drake and her fellow women undergraduates a hand, Drake said. A leader in the women’s-suffrage movement and one of the earliest financial supporters of the research that led to the development of the birth-control pill, McCormick was a significant presence in Drake’s day. “We loved her,” Drake said. “She provided a taxi fund.” It was a small gesture, but on rainy or snowy days, the MIT women appreciated being able to hail a cab and get a ride from campus to their dorm in Back Bay.
McCormick also tried to prod the women out of the typical mid-1950s mind-set. “She invited us to tea at her Commonwealth Avenue home,” Drake recalled. “We had to wear hats and gloves, and a butler let us into her home.” The women were nervous, but McCormick immediately put them at ease. “Well, young ladies, I assume you all know about birth control,’” Drake recalled her saying. “Have you given thought to how you will manage your career and reproductive life?’”
The women who gathered at the MIT conference came to share stories about how they have done exactly that, to describe some of the obstacles they have faced and overcome, and to network with MIT alumnae from classes spanning more than five decades. The event offered panels featuring three dozen alumnae who talked about their experiences in such fields as city planning, finance, media, medicine and health care, education, corporate leadership, and corporate marketing. Irene Greif ‘69, an IBM fellow, gave the keynote address, and current women faculty members and President Hockfield also spoke.
“There was tremendous energy that was palpable in all of the sessions,” said Linda Sharpe ‘69, Alumni Association past president. “We were way oversubscribed, an indication of unmet demand.”
A number of common themes emerged throughout the day. Perhaps the most dominant were that MIT taught the alumnae how to prioritize their work and that it gave them intellectual confidence. “I loved being here because it was a challenge,” said Lauren Seeley Aguirre ‘86, executive editor for Nova Online at WGBH public television in Boston. “It gave me incredible confidence intellectually in my career.”
A common criticism was that MIT did not teach women students how to achieve balance in their lives. Drake, who is retired but remains associated with MIT’s Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, admitted that she learned too well how to be competitive, and became essentially addicted to working. Her obsessiveness was devastating in her early career. “I ended up an alcoholic and being fired from a top vice president position at Arthur D. Little,” she told the group.
Selling themselves and their ideas was another skill many alumni said they had to learn on the job. “Here [at MIT] we’re all about the value of the idea,” said Terry Sutton ‘83, director of customer satisfaction at L. L. Bean in Portland, ME. “If you have the right answer, then what else do you need?” Sutton discovered that to be successful in business, however, she needed more than the right answer. “You have to push your agenda forward, package your ideas,” she said. Sarah Schott ‘83, president of Weston, MA-based Leapfrog Marketing, agreed. “The business world is all about selling yourself, which doesn’t seem to be a trait you learn at MIT.”
The women had plenty of advice to offer: listen before you make decisions, delegate work so others can grow, be sure there is someone in your group who is able to synthesize information, never say you work part time, and have a plan for your life and work to fulfill it.
Julianne Malveaux, PhD ‘80, economist, author, and commentator, provided some advice on how to help close the salary gap between men and women: use “the three most powerful words in the English language–is that all?–when a salary offer is made.”
Aliki Collins, PhD ‘87, a member of the organizing committee, hopes that the conference was just the foundation on which to build an active program regionally and nationally. “It’s important for us to maintain relationships later in life,” she said. “MIT alums don’t do that well. For us, it’s a waste of time to go to meetings like this or go play golf. We’re busy going on to the next thing.” But it was clear from the enthusiasm of these MIT alumnae that they have discovered the power and value of sharing their stories with women of all ages.