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Mary Dwyer, President, IES Abroad, US

A true trailblazer in the international education industry, IES Abroad president Mary Dwyer was recently presented with the Outstanding Contribution award at The PIEoneers 2018 for her leadership, collaboration, and research over more than 20 years. She met with The PIE to talk about some career highlights and the evolution of women in leadership positions.


Photo: Roger Harris

"I think working in the developing world certainly had an impact on me, more than if I had worked in the West"

The PIE News: I want to start with a bit of an obvious one, but identity politics is important in 2018, and with organisations like Lead5050 and others gaining profile in the industry, I wonder how important you think gender is to your work, or do you prefer to focus on other aspects to your work and leadership?

Mary Dwyer: You know, because I was a gender researcher I’m probably more conscious of it than some, but I don’t actually think of myself that way.

I don’t think better leadership skills reside in either gender, and I think we will have achieved equal success when we don’t think of it that way.

“I think women leaders do get to the heights, [but] have to work a bit harder to get there”

Ironically enough, when I arrived [in the UK] the customs officer asked my husband and I what we were doing here, and I said I’m here on business, and he said he’s here for vacation. [The officer] asked what I do, and I told him I’ve been coming here for 40 years as a female leader.

Usually, they just give no response, but he sparked up and said: “That’s great that there are more of you”.  I said: “More of me? I’m thinking, ‘what is he talking about?'”.

This is interesting because in 40 years no one had reacted one way or the other before. So I think that shows you how long it takes to make these societal changes, to accept the idea… I think women leaders do get to the heights, [but] have to work a bit harder to get there, to overcome barriers. But I do not think of myself exclusively that way, I just think of myself as using the best organisational practices to be effective.

The PIE: It’s interesting the border patrol picked up on that… do you think the international education sector, which has to use these borders so often, has changed as well; are things moving in the right direction?

MD: You know, I don’t see it moving fast in international education, but having studied female career success progress as an academic, I know it takes time. It’s very common in female-dominated fields, which international education is, for [progress] to take longer. If you look at library sciences or nursing, for decades they never had female leaders.

We just completed the senior level search at IES for the number two person [at the] top academic office and the search firm didn’t come up with any qualified women for that role, which I think is pretty amazing. So I think [changes] are actually occurring slower than one might think.

“There didn’t use to be that many women CEOs, but there are more and more of them”

Having said that, I mentor females in various organisations, very deliberately. I choose an entry-level and a mid-career person because I think if people don’t get the attention at various career stages, they’re not going to know how to jump the barriers and how to succeed or even think they can succeed.

The PIE: So a bit of a gentle encouragement and trying to open up opportunities?

MD: Yes, opening up opportunities, talking about what skills they need to develop, talking about real life case studies.

The PIE: I want to touch on something you mentioned earlier, which is your previous experience in medicine, and working and living in developing countries. How has that influenced your approach to getting students mobile?

MD: Medicine taught me about the concept of treatment of choice. If you don’t use that treatment of choice, you’re inviting a lawsuit or harm to patients. What surprised me when I came into this field was that there were absolutely no standards or best practices.

So IES put together the IES MAP, a series of standards. I brought to the field expectations that there will be health and safety standards, crisis management standards.

I think [working in the developing world] certainly had an impact on me, more than if I had worked in the West maybe, because it was such a dramatic difference. It was as if I have landed on a different planet when at the age of 26 I found myself working in Egypt… and I really didn’t encounter any Western women, either in professional circles or even socially.

“There are students in London who think it’s extremely challenging, they tell me that the British don’t speak English”

It made me think about moving IES into the developing world, which turns out was very risky, because IES had been in the developing world way before the rest of the field, and had to pull out of all locations because there was no demand.

I think the students who choose to go to a developing country, it’s really having a more dramatic impact on them and it is more challenging. But, everybody chooses whatever their challenge level is, which is great.

There are students in London who think it’s extremely challenging, they tell me that the British don’t speak English, and I would say yes, they actually speak the original version of the language. So we have to meet students at their current level, and help them grow.

The PIE: That trip to Egypt you mentioned, was that what inspired you to get into this field? 

MD: Yes, it was. I was at the University of Illinois’ medical school, they sent me to teach physicians.

Even once I got out of medical education and became a full-time administrator, I made sure I took at least one international assignment every year. And eventually, even though I haven’t studied abroad when the IES Abroad job offer came along, it really appealed to me because the thing I liked most was doing international work.

It is just more broadening for me and gave me a sense of perspective which I try to bring to other students through programming, and so, in the end, it led me to study abroad.

The PIE: Changing track a little bit, to an unfortunate but necessary question for a CEO based in the US, is there a diminished appetite in the US to study abroad for a semester or year or is it actually growing?

MD: Haha, you know, the market has actually been flat.

“I actually think some of the growth we are experiencing is students trying to get away from the political noise”

The market for study abroad is actually relatively flat for the last 10 years, so it predates [current affairs].

I think some universities just maybe have reached capacity in terms of interest. But, what has happened is US universities are dominating study abroad now, so third-party providers like IES only consume 25% of the market. You can imagine a market that isn’t growing much that squeezes out the providers [like] IES Abroad unless we maintain high quality programming and global reach.

When I started, IES was generating 10 million dollar year in revenue, and educating a thousand students a year. Now this year we will exceed 125 million in revenue and will exceed nine thousand students. So we’re continuing to grow at double-digit rates, but that’s not the case in the market… it’s growing one-to-two per cent a year.

I actually think some of the growth we are experiencing is students trying to get away from the noise, noises are constant Twitter, the constant political noise and a lot of social movements, the #MeToo movement and everything. So when I talk to some students on our programs they tell me they wanted to get away and clear their heads in some ways. Get a new perspective.

The obstacle, for now, is money. It’s very expensive to do, and so even if their financial aid goes with them, it is more expensive to live in London than Illinois. So I don’t think the demand has lessened in the minds of students, I just think that there are student bodies that are becoming more diversified and as a result, they tend to be less wealthy populations and less able to afford the experience.

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