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Women & Power Issue

Roundtable: Glass ceilings and getting ahead

We talked to male and female executives about progress in the American workplace.

Clockwise from top left: Nancy Gerter, Jay Hooley, Lee Pelton, R. Robert Popeo, Beth Williams, and Linda Zecher. Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff

Is the glass ceiling gone? Is the old boys’ club network dead? The answers may depend upon whom you ask. We convened two separate groups of executives and leaders — one of men, one of women — to get their take on the progress made in promoting women to the top.

Globe business columnist Shirley Leung moderated. Interviews have been edited and condensed.

Laura Sen, chief executive of BJ’s Wholesale Club. Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff


Nancy Gertner, Harvard Law professor and retired federal judge; Laura Sen, chief executive of BJ’s Wholesale Club; Beth Williams, chief executive of Roxbury Technology Corp.; and Linda Zecher, chief executive of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

> Have we made good progress in getting women into leadership roles at organizations and on corporate boards?


GERTNER The leadership of most of the law firms across the country has stalled at 13 to 15 percent women equity partners, even though for the past 25 years the law schools have been graduating 50 percent of their class women. There is a pipeline that should have led to 50 percent women in positions of power in law firms, and it has not.

SEN I would say that the retail profession and consumer goods are very rich in women CEOs and management. Probably it is the best area for women to excel. I think [it’s] because we represent the consumer.

ZECHER I would say the publishing industry has always been primarily men, and it still is, except for when you come to fashion publishing. But if I look at it from a technology standpoint, which is really my background, we’ve made baby steps, if [any] steps at all. Everyone points to Silicon Valley and Marissa [Mayer] taking over at Yahoo as “Wow, this is great. We finally have women.” That’s one woman in one role.

WILLIAMS I would have to agree, too, and I’m in manufacturing. I think I am the only African-American female manufacturer in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Manufacturing, yes, is changing, but there are 7,000 manufacturers in Massachusetts and very few women.


Nancy Gertner, Harvard Law professor and retired federal judge. Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff

> Is the old boys’ network gone?

GERTNER Where’s the data? Show us the facts.

WILLIAMS Are you kidding? That is crazy.

GERTNER The question is whether the measure is what it had been 40 years ago. If that’s the measure, then certainly we are fabulous. No question about it. If the measure is the number of qualified women in the pool, that’s a different measure. I love Ruth Ginsburg’s comment about the Supreme Court. Isn’t it wonderful that there are now three women on the Supreme Court? No, she said, there should be half, and there’s no question that should mirror society. So, yes, things are better, there are high-profile women in some positions, but the numbers suggest a glass ceiling. The question is why.

> So why haven’t we made more progress?

ZECHER In part, it’s a pyramid. You have to have enough women at the bottom levels of management so you can start moving them up. Historically, we have not done that well, and we have not done that fast enough.

SEN I had an early boss and mentor. He promoted me several times, and he said something that I think is really true. He said you hire and promote in your own image. I would tell you BJ’s has never had as many women in management at the executive vice president or senior vice president level as it has since I’m running the company.


GERTNER The workplace is not family-friendly. We see this as an individual woman’s choice, how to combine work and family, rather than a societal choice.

Linda Zecher, chief executive of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff

> How do we change society? Do men need to take up more child-care and household responsibilities?

WILLIAMS We’re kind of seeing that as sort of a side effect of what’s happened to the economy, with more men being laid off. But I’m going to throw something out there that is a little controversial: I see men in the workforce bonding better than women. Men will reach back, they’ll go out together, they’ll do things together. Women, for a variety of reasons, either have to go home to our families, or this, that, and the other. But men will go play golf. They go on trips and stuff like that. I don’t see women having that same level of camaraderie and same kind of a network. Are we reaching back and pulling women up? I don’t think we do that as well as the men do. That’s part of the good old boy “I’m going to look out for you.”

SEN When women choose to have a family, it can be a big obstacle. When the kids are sick, then the woman has to stay out, and her performance suffers because she’s not there. That kind of issue, not to mention those women who choose to take a few years off from the workforce, it does hold them back. That’s a choice. You have to be honest about it.


ZECHER I disagree with that a little bit. I actually took three years off. I felt like I was losing my family because I felt like I wasn’t with them. Then I decided to get back into the workforce, so I jumped back in a different role at a different place. I still think I’m ahead of where my contemporaries are or [am] even, because I didn’t feel bad about [taking time off]. A lot of women feel guilty.

Beth Williams, chief executive of Roxbury Technology Corp.Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff

GERTNER We constantly describe this as an individual problem, the individual choices that women have made. You posed the question as “Is your husband taking responsibility?” That’s part of it. Anne-Marie Slaughter, when she wrote her article for The Atlantic , was talking about things like school days are organized for agriculture. The kids get out at 3 o’clock. Excuse me, what job ends at 3 o’clock? So there are structural issues having to do with the way we organize school and the way we organize work that make women bear the brunt of this responsibility.

> How do you make those structural changes?

GERTNER Public schools should be [open] till 5 o’clock and begin at a reasonable hour.

Is there one big issue that holds women back but is not being discussed?

ZECHER Women don’t promote themselves enough. We tend not to network as much as men do. We tend not to leverage our networks. [MSNBC’s] Mika Brzezinski wrote this book about how you have to understand your own power, and a lot of what she was talking about is we don’t always ask for things, and we’re much meeker in our requirements and our requests.


WILLIAMS For 10 years, I’ve been the only woman at most of my meetings, and it’s so taxing right now. It’s frustrating. And to throw another layer, it’s as a woman of color. Whether you want to call it unconscious biases or whatever, when I’m sitting in a room with white men, I’m thinking that I’ve had an amazing journey, and I feel like if I were a man who did the things that I did, my business would be four times the size that it is today.

> Do you think Boston is more male dominated?

GERTNER When I was a judge, it was extraordinary how few women litigators there were for the big firms. I know that New York is different. There were women in public positions — public defenders, US attorneys — but when it came to a large antitrust case or a large copyright case, you would find the woman would be in the back, and it would be mostly male litigators.

ZECHER Our company is 180 years old, and I’m the first female that has run the company. So when I first arrived, there were pictures of all the former CEOs, and they were all white men, and none of them were smiling. So I put my picture on the wall, in color, smiling. But now I’ve got a company where my chief content officer is a female. The company was almost always predominantly female down the ranks because of former teachers, editors, but never in management.

> From the men’s round table, held yesterday, there were two schools of thought on promoting women: formal structures versus every woman for herself. Which works?

SEN It’s never a random event when your intentions become reality. Now whether it looks like a policy or it looks like some other way of promoting this notion of women in the workplace or diversity, it has to be very intentional.

ZECHER It can be threatening when a lot of attention is going toward women, and we have these programs in place, and they’re going to take over the world. But they need to look at the advantages of having a more diverse population and diverse thinking. You have to think about what you’re gaining by bringing more people rather than just fighting it out in the bullpen.



R. Robert Popeo, chairman of Mintz Levin. Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff

Jay Hooley, chief executive and chairman of State Street Corp.; R. Robert Popeo, chairman of Mintz Levin; and Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College

> What, if anything, do men in positions of power need to do to pave the way for more women in leadership roles?

HOOLEY There isn’t a silver bullet. If I look at [State Street] demographics, 55 percent of the employees are female, 45 male, and as you move up through the hierarchy of management, it starts to winnow out. What’s the root cause? There are several. One of them is family obligation. So as a result, we’ve been a big proponent of flexible work. We have 5,000 people working on flexible schedules. The other thing that showed up is an apparent bias in the way that people are evaluated and promoted within the organization. We put the whole senior organization through unconscious bias training. Fascinating, the biases that you naturally have from childbirth and how that influences judgments you make about people, performance. A big part of females getting ahead is to [eliminate] this unconscious bias.

POPEO If I had to give any advice to women across the board, [it would be] do not take the role of a victim because you’re not a victim. These organizations that seek to jam a quota in do a disservice to these women, because these women rise on the basis of excellence, not quotas. In my organization over the past 20 years, the top four producing sections of the law firm were run by women. They weren’t there because they were women. They were there because they were talented.

PELTON If you look at corporate America, 53 percent of new hires are women, but as you progress up the management ladder, that begins to change substantially. That 53 percent becomes 37 percent for managers and about 23 percent for vice president-level executives, so clearly as you look through that pipeline, there’s a set of issues that are either barriers to success or issues that discourage women from maintaining their presence as they move up the corporate ladder. My experience, because I’ve sat on a couple of publicly traded boards, is that leadership is crucial in this area. It requires the chairman of the board and the board itself and the CEO to be very intentional about this issue.

Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College. Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff

> Is it hard to find women to serve on boards?

PELTON I’m actually the chair of [a board] nominating and governance committee. As we looked for a director last year, our attention has been on retired CEOs, and in this particular space, overwhelmingly those retired CEOs are men. One of the things you can do as a board is look outside the traditional places.

POPEO I’m the president of the National Association of Corporate Directors, New England chapter. We spend a lot of time thinking and looking at this. I added five members to my board last year, four of whom are women. I always look to see how women can help themselves. I’ve served on four public company boards. I have served on not-for-profit boards. I’ve served on hospital boards. There is a process by which you qualify yourself. Women have to start that process, and it may be you serve on a not-for-profit board and start getting some idea of how boards function.

> Do you think men take to networking more naturally than women?

POPEO No. I think that traditionally men have done it, and it’s a new experience for women now. You could look to Karen Kaplan, who is the CEO of Hill Holliday, or Anne Finucane at Bank of America. They’ve all been out there; they’ve all worked the system. There’s a truism here. Unless you make the rules, you better learn the rules of the game and be good at them. You may not like them, but those are the rules of the game and that’s your route to success.

PELTON It’s still the case that family formation impacts men and women differently. Even if you look at families where both husband and wife work, the woman still spends twice as much time as her husband taking care of her children. By the way, I’m a single dad with a 14-year-old, so I know some of these issues. Women now represent about 2 out of 5 of the faculty in colleges and universities. But among tenured faculty, 70 percent of the men are married with children, and only 44 percent of the women are married with children, which suggests that if you’re a male and you’re married, tenure is more accessible for you than it is for a woman who’s married and has children.

Jay Hooley,chief executive and chairman of State Street Corp.Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff

> What about the current generation of male college students? How do they view household duties?

PELTON There’s a greater sense that men and women are equal in terms of leadership capacity and their performance in the classroom. But what happens after college, you know I’m not smart enough to predict.

POPEO It used to be a stigma for the woman to be working and the man to be the stay-at-home parent. That’s gone. The breakdown of those barriers has also permeated the workplace. This idea of it’s an old boys’ network — that’s gone — and it isn’t even a desirable to have that.

> Do you guys agree that the old boys’ network is gone?

HOOLEY I’m not sure what the old boys’ network is.

POPEO That says it all.

PELTON It’s undeniable that there are still barriers to women participating in corporate life as much as we would like. Whatever you want to call it, but the barriers exist. They are complicated. We have a long way to go.

Shirley Leung can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @leung. Her column runs on Wednesday and Friday.