Let’s face it: Proudly progressive Massachusetts is not always a female-friendly place. Men have won all but seven of hundreds of statewide elections ever held here. Exceptions have been a treasurer, an attorney general, an auditor, a senator, and a trio of lieutenant governors, who, of course, aren’t voted in on their own, anyway. Want further evidence of just how pitiful those statistics are in the year 2014? In 1998, Arizona elected women to its top five offices.
Here, each female lieutenant governor ran for the top job. After Paul Cellucci fled north to become ambassador to Canada, Jane Swift was a candidate, and then Mitt Romney elbowed her out. Evelyn Murphy lasted until she proposed a budget-slashing scheme while Michael Dukakis was out of state and she was in charge (ultimate Democratic nominee John Silber called it “the kind of coup d’etat you find in a musical comedy”). Kerry Healey, who served with Romney, was the only one who made it to Election Day, then lost to Deval Patrick.
I approached three of the leaders elected on their own to see why they think women have fared so poorly in a state known for being ahead of the curve. Auditor Suzanne Bump cited the words of someone she says she rarely quotes, Margaret Thatcher: “If you want something said, give it to a man. If you want something done, give it to a woman.” Bump believes a weak economy has provided less room for doers. Former treasurer Shannon O’Brien, who lost to Romney in 2002, said candidates have to be tough and likable, a standard applied far more harshly to women. She added that the “too tough” image is harder for women to wear. And Martha Coakley, who hopes to break through this fall, said: “We are an old-fashioned state in a lot of ways — one foot in the 21st [century], one in the 18th.” None of them whined, but all are students of political history.
If misery loves company, it can be found in the state’s corporate sector. Governor Patrick’s recent initiative, which will place at least a dozen women in fellowships as state managers, sheds light on the dearth of their gender-mates in C suites and boardrooms (the application process is expected to open later this month). In 2013, according to the Boston Club, more than half of the state’s publicly traded companies had no female executive officers. More than a quarter had no women on the board. Twenty-one of the top 100 are what they aptly call “zero-zeros,” none in either. Does anyone believe that Anne Finucane at Bank of America, the bosses of Boston’s big ad agencies, including Karen Kaplan of Hill Holliday, plus a few others are the only qualified businesswomen in Massachusetts?
The state’s new secretary of labor and workforce development, Rachel Kaprielian, will lead Patrick’s effort. One of her goals is to find ways to make sure competent female executives-in-waiting don’t leave their already demanding jobs. I can save her some research time: Give them what most male bosses already have — a wife. There is an old boys’ network around here, but not an old girls’ one. And that means there is little support for ambitious women as they raise the kids and tend to the spouse and elderly parents while competing with men who often do few or none of the other jobs.
So, what could change the fate of women in corporate Massachusetts? One possibility would be more lying on resumes, like the recently defrocked Leslie Berlowitz of Cambridge’s American Academy of Arts & Sciences, who apparently concocted a doctorate she didn’t have. No? How about be patient and smart and work your way up through the ranks, like General Motors’ Mary Barra, the first female CEO of a US car company. Though with at least 13 deaths linked to a defect allegedly concealed for years, some think Barra broke a glass ceiling only to stand atop a glass cliff. Like other sacrificial lambs of her gender, she was elevated in a time of crisis to take the heat, and now she’s being cooked by it.
Since our private sector has been proved unable to fix itself, let government help with the fixing. Spain, France, Italy, and a few other countries have laws mandating that companies fill a certain percentage of director positions with women. The full European Union may follow. Too radical? So few women after so many years calls for radical.
The same quota system won’t work in elections, though. Here’s one idea: Many advocacy groups rate elected officials on how they vote on key issues. Each ends up with a score card that people can assess when making their voting decisions. How about a score card of whom politicians endorse in races in which there are qualified candidates of both genders? If such balance matters to you, judge them accordingly on Election Day.
Most women with whom I spoke were cup-more-than-half-full types. They point to recent victories by Elizabeth Warren and Katherine Clark, who joined Niki Tsongas in Congress. But legislative positions are one thing, decision-making executive offices are another. We like to say we’re a progressive state. Let’s prove it.
BY THE NUMBERS
Percentage of female directors at the state’s 100 largest public companies
Percentage of all directors who are women of color