commentary

Lori Allen — P.E.O. invests in the future of women

Updated: 2013-07-24T22:39:35Z

By Lori Allen

Special to The Star

I started reading the book by Sheryl Sandberg titled “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.”

I haven’t finished it; this is summer…kids are home, reading time is rare and work doesn’t stop. The book presents an interesting discussion on gender differences with a notion that while there is plenty of blame to go around for the lack of females in leadership positions, women themselves are to blame as well.

Ms. Sandberg is charming and easy to relate to. She shares some thoughts about why women are so absent from leadership positions.

All too often we aren’t in positions to offer the hand up to each other as men do, and even when we are, we choose not to promote other successful women. The book cites an interesting 2003 study from Columbia Business School as proof of this, and I certainly have witnessed this behavior firsthand.

The book also notes that working women are at times at odds with stay-at-home mothers in addition to dealing with their own “tugs” from home. Enlightening too are the tales of women entering the workforce feeling the need to act like men when really we have so much more to offer when we don’t.

Many of Sandberg’s observations and positions have been criticized and attacked. I think it’s because balancing work and family is difficult and deeply personal. And it’s hard to agree on some of the solutions.

But there is one organization that I’d imagine all women could agree on, whether they are working women or those who choose to stay home with their children, young women or the more mature. It’s a place where women can learn, grow, and enjoy each other’s company, where back stabbing and criticizing are not tolerated and where caring and support abound.

Sound too good to be true? If you think so, then you are not yet familiar with P.E.O.

P.E.O. is a philanthropic educational organization for women. Founded in 1869, P.E.O. believes in supporting women and education by offering scholarships and aid. It believes so strongly in education that members have an instructional program at each meeting so that they can continue to learn and enrich their own lives as well.

Nearly 88,000 women have benefited from the five different educational grants, loans, awards and special projects of P.E.O. If you think that number is impressive, think about this: To date, the organization’s Educational Loan Fund has awarded nearly $136 million, International Peace Scholarships more than $28 million, Program for Continuing Education grants amount to more than $40 million, Scholar Awards are nearly $15 million and P.E.O. Star Scholarships total more than $1.9 million.

That’s putting your money where your mouth is. That’s giving a hand up. That’s women supporting other women. We need a book about that. Or at least a column.

And P.E.O.’s own an independent liberal arts and sciences women’s college in Nevada, Mo. Cottey College, is a small vibrant community where professors are not only experts in their field but are experts at building relationships with students that foster complete growth for the student as a person. If the student doesn’t show up for class, for example, it is not out of the ordinary for the professor to follow up with a personal phone call to make sure everything is OK. Encouragement and support is not just talked about in the classroom but followed up on in the halls.

Women have been attending Cottey College for 128 years, and proud graduates can be found in all fields. Quietly and steadily, this small college has gone from being a two-year school to offering six full baccalaureate degrees. Impressive, too, is that the college is debt free and has recently raised more than $34 million in a recent fundraising campaign.

Graduates are strong, educated and confident women ready to attend graduate school or enter the workforce. The focus is on leadership, social responsibility and global awareness. There is no argument that our leaders for tomorrow should have those qualities.

When women are half of the global population but hold only 9.4 percent of board directorships and 20 percent of senior management positions, we can agree there’s much to be done.

Ms. Sandburg offers a lot of solutions in her book. Some brilliant, some controversial.

P.E.O. just might be the one thing that all women can agree on. It’s another solution that invests in the future of women, and it has results to back it up.

Freelance columnist Lori Allen writes in this space once a month.

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