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Shirley Leung

Campaign to oust Suffolk president is case study in gender politics

Students rallied Tuesday outside Suffolk University’s Walsh Theater in support of the school’s embattled president, Margaret McKenna.
Students rallied Tuesday outside Suffolk University’s Walsh Theater in support of the school’s embattled president, Margaret McKenna.John Tlumacki/Globe staff

In the drama that is unfolding at Suffolk University, Martha Coakley would have made the perfect other woman.

A faction of the university’s board of trustees wants president Margaret McKenna out, and the former attorney general was being offered up as a viable alternative. She fit the part because schools like to hire politicians for their ability to raise money and bolster the profile of their overshadowed institution. She was also the politically correct choice when pushing out Suffolk’s first female president.

Coakley hasn’t been talking. She hasn’t been this MIA since her US Senate race against Scott Brown. Knowingly or unknowingly, Coakley’s silence made her an enabler in McKenna’s potential ouster. But then on Tuesday afternoon, the state’s first female AG did the right thing by issuing a simple statement: “I would like to clarify that I am not a candidate for the role of president of Suffolk University nor will I be and I look forward to continuing my law practice at Foley Hoag.”

I’m not here to take sides, but rather indict an ugly process that has devolved into a maelstrom of “he said, she said” in the media. McKenna is being pilloried by some trustees who want her out after just seven months, accusing her of unauthorized spending and what they have described as an “abrasive” style.

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In the drama unfolding at Suffolk University surrounding president Margaret McKenna (left), Martha Coakley would have made the perfect other woman, says Shirley Leung.
In the drama unfolding at Suffolk University surrounding president Margaret McKenna (left), Martha Coakley would have made the perfect other woman, says Shirley Leung.Globe Staff/File

It’s a situation that has many women in this town watching in horror, myself included.

“What is more old Boston than Suffolk University? The way the board is being run and who is on the board, I don’t see how you separate gender from that,” said Trish Karter, cofounder of Dancing Deer Baking Company, who has met McKenna but does not count her as a close friend.

“It’s the blind prejudice that people don’t even know they are exercising — the knee-jerk, go-to, longstanding stereotypes of women that come out in times like this,” said Karter. “To me, that’s the ‘abrasive’ comment.”

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Apple CEO Steve Jobs was abrasive, so was General Electric honcho Jack Welch. Yet that’s OK. Actually more than OK. They are revered as bold and decisive leaders.

We see it in politics. Donald Trump is brash, Bernie Sanders is strident, and voters eat it up. But Hillary Clinton? She doesn’t smile enough.

It’s the proverbial double standard for women.

Andrea Silbert, president of the Eos Foundation, isn’t particularly tight with McKenna either, but has worked with her on anti-hunger issues. When Silbert read the headlines about Suffolk, she couldn’t help but think what was really going on.

“This is insiders not comfortable with a competent and independent woman moving forward to fix Suffolk University,” said Silbert, whose group pushes for better education and fights poverty and hunger. “This is about powerful interests having control and losing control. There is a lot of power and money. Any time there is a situation with power and money involved in our society, gender plays a role because women are still not at the same level as men in terms of equality on boards and as chief executive officers.”

How diverse is the Suffolk board anyway? According to its website, the private university has 20 men and 7 women on its board of trustees. Not bad if it were a public company, but that shouldn’t be the benchmark. Let’s take a look at Harvard’s governing board, the Corporation. Six of the 13 members are women. That’s more like it.

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What’s also disturbing is the way McKenna is being shown the door. When things go awry with men in high-profile jobs, they are often given golden handshakes. The euphemisms are all too familiar — leaving for “personal reasons,” “to spend more time with their family,” or “to explore new opportunities.”

Female leaders, on the other hand, seem to leave in a hail of bullets. Every case is different, but think about what happened to Heather Campion at the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, or Divina Grossman at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

The end was also ugly for these female firsts: Secret Service director Julia Pierson, who resigned amid White House security lapses, and New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who was abruptly dismissed. Both endured public humiliation.

Sure, male bosses get thrown under the bus, but there are so few women in prominent posts that we probably remember their falls as much as their rises.

But here’s another reason why female CEOs get unceremoniously axed: They are more likely to be brought in from the outside to shake things up or turn around organizations. But without an internal network, it can be harder to succeed, and female CEOs are forced out at a higher rate (38 percent) compared to men (27 percent), according to a decadelong study of 2,500 public companies by consulting firm Strategy&.

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These women broke the glass ceiling, only to discover what academics dub the glass cliff.

That’s the perilous situation McKenna finds herself in. Even with the other woman out of the picture, McKenna will still have to fight for her job, facing the same forces that have kept so many others like her out of the corner office.

Suffolk University students rallied Tuesday in support of university president Margaret McKenna, who has been under pressure from some trustees to resign.
Suffolk University students rallied Tuesday in support of university president Margaret McKenna, who has been under pressure from some trustees to resign.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.