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Junior League shifts focus to careers


A good place for women to get the skills and experience necessary to move ahead professionally is the Junior League, says its new national president, Mary B. Babson, a certified public accountant, vice president of communications and principal at Arthur Andersen & Co.'s world headquarters in Chicago.

"Being in the league . . . gives women the skills to tackle difficult issues, skills that are readily transferable to the workplace," says Ms. Babson, a Phi Beta Kappa member who has a master's degree in business administration.

The Junior League? Is she kidding?

Isn't the volunteer group made up of socially prominent young and unemployed white women married to affluent men? Don't they, in a refined manner, do good deeds for the poor?

Well, Ms. Babson isn't kidding: The 188,000-member Junior League -- officially known as the Association of Junior Leagues International Inc., with headquarters in New York -- has changed its image and expanded its agenda.

Today, the league has a multicultural membership, and married members no longer are listed under their husbands' names.

And, in 1987, the percentage of members in the paid labor market passed 50 percent. In 1992, it's 64.7 percent.

And, although still committed to voluntarism and issues involving children and education, another focus of the league is "to ensure that women have opportunities and services essential for their intellectual, economic, social, mental, physical and emotional well-being," according to its 1991 position paper.

Ms. Babson isn't the first employed national president: In 1984, there was little media attention when Carole Hart, director of administration for New England Log Homes, assumed the post.

It was a far cry from 1968, when Janet Wood Diederichs, head of her own successful public relations firm, was named president of the Chicago chapter of the Junior League. Society page headlines read: "First working girl named league president."

Ms. Babson joined the Junior League of Denver in 1979 and became president of the local chapter before transferring to Chicago with Andersen in 1988. A volunteer, she heads an organization with $3.61 million in assets, a full-time executive director and a staff of 60.

"The Junior League has given me the visibility and training to advance in my career," she says. "Its image is changing. It now is a pre-eminent force for change, with a multi-issue agenda."

Ms. Babson notes that leadership training programs the league offers members have been taken by prominent professional women such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, former president of the Junior League of Phoenix; and U.S. Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin, former president of the Junior League of Rockford, Ill.

Other members with high-ranking jobs include Ann Cramer, Southern area external program manager for International Business Machines Corp., Atlanta; Sonia Perez, area manager, Southwestern Bell, McAllen, Texas; Margot J. Copeland, manager of corporate compliance, Picket International, Cleveland; and Gwendolyn J. Wong, manager of credit and loans for the Industrial Bank of Japan Ltd., San Francisco.

The league has a legislative office in Washington and is a strong supporter of pay equity and the proposed Family and Medical Leave Act. It "was at the table" helping frame legislation for the Act for Better Child Care.

The new president says the "junior" in the league's title may be obsolete. "We keep it because it's tradition," she says.

Ms. Babson, who speaks with pride of the volunteer work she has done in teen pregnancy prevention, says her goal as president is to "see the image of the league move to one of a strong force for change."

Another group agrees that employed women benefit from club membership.

Business and Professional Women USA (BPW), a national organization based in Washington, says it offers its membership a "career-enhancing experience." BPW works to promote full participation, equity and economic self-sufficiency for U.S. women. Its membership of 100,000 is made up only of employed women.

"When I first joined BPW, I had no concept I would benefit so much in my own growth," says Pat Taylor, BPW national president and manager of procurement contracting and vendor relations for Southwestern Bell in St. Louis. "I learned public speaking, leadership skills, group dynamics, meeting planning. BPW provides a safe environment to practice these skills."

One of the most important aspects of BPW, which has a $3 million budget, is networking, she says. The group also has a highly respected foundation that is involved in education, research and referral and awards scholarships. BPW has a strong legislative presence in Washington and sponsors skill-building programs.

Though there are similarities, BPW differs from the Junior League.

"We do some community service, but our primary focus is to elevate standards of working women and to promote equity, economic self-sufficiency and full participation for women in the workplace," Ms. Taylor says.

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