Fresh from college and equipped with a liberal arts degree, Tracey Armstrong started her professional career about as junior as you can get: As a clerk: filing, typing, and taking phone messages.
She never considered it a possibility that she might one day ascend to the top job at that very same organization.
“You don’t find a lot of clerk-to-CEO stories,” said Armstrong, who over nearly 20 years worked her way up to the helm of the Copyright Clearance Center in Danvers. “You don’t see a lot of women in these chairs. It’s just not that common.”
But it is a bit more common than it used to be. Although women still account for only 21 of the spots on the Fortune 500 list, high-profile CEOs such as Meg Whitman of HP, Ginni Rometty of IBM, and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo are providing powerful examples of just how far women can go.
The region has its share of women — at companies big and small — whose intelligence, hard work, and perseverance have landed them in the coveted corner office.
“There’s a good representation of women CEOs on the North Shore,” said K. Brewer Doran, dean of the Bertolon School of Business at Salem State University. That number is particularly higher among local nonprofits, she said, but overall she called the area a “much more open climate.”
Doran pointed out one major shift is the presence of several organizations working to get women onto company boards, which ultimately do the hiring and firing of management.
Specifically, she pointed to The Boston Club, a large group of women executives and professional leaders in the Northeast, and the national group 2020 Women on Boards, which strives to have 20 percent representation by women on business boards by the year 2020.
“The more diverse board you have, the more likely they are to promote women into that position,” Doran said.
Leslie Kagan of the Rockport-based business consulting firm Kagan Associates, who recently headed up a forum for local female CEOs through The Commonwealth Institute, stressed the caliber of those female CEOs and entrepreneurs.
“The women I’ve had the privilege to work with are outstanding,” she said, calling them “incredibly competent, smart women who aren’t afraid to ask themselves the tough questions about life.”
Sometimes, though, those questions start out simple. Helen Greiner of CyPhy Works in Danvers, for instance, met her “muse,” R2-D2, when she saw the original “Star Wars” at age 11.
“He had emotions, he had a personality, he was able to communicate without needing to speak,” she said at a TEDxBoston talk in June. (Because she was traveling overseas, Greiner was not available for this article.)
From then on, it was her dream to build robots. She studied at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then cofounded iRobot, whose Roomba vacuum is in millions of homes (and has appeared in many a viral cat video), and whose PackBot bomb disposal device has been credited with saving hundreds of lives in war zones.
Today at CyPhy Works, she and her team work on advanced unmanned aerial vehicles – or flying robots — which she says have numerous uses, from getting a close view of dangerous situations, to delivering packages.
The reason there aren’t more women in her field, she said, is because they haven’t been supported to pursue it.
“I’ve always been a geek. And I’m proud of it. Yet when I was growing up, not one person told me I should be an engineer,” she said in an acceptance speech in 2008 for a Women of Vision Award, annual tributes given by The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. “If I wasn’t encouraged, even with the outward appearance of a geek, what about all the other girls who haven’t yet gravitated in that direction?”
Other local female leaders agreed that barriers, in some cases, remain high.
“I don’t think much has changed over the last 10 to 15 years. In fact, it’s possible things have taken a step back,” said Mary Puma, CEO of Axcelis Technologies, a publicly traded semiconductor manufacturer headquartered in Beverly.
One barrier to business leadership, Armstrong contended, is “Women don’t ask for it for a series of complicated reasons,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for it. There’s nothing wrong with it, and not enough women do it. The answer might not always be ‘yes,’ but don’t let the first ‘no’ be the last time you ask.”
Puma noted the emphasis today on “work-life balance,” but, she stressed, it’s more about managing time, making choices, and setting priorities. The idea of opting in and out of work can potentially be “an issue,” she said, if you’re trying to work toward a high-level management role. (For example, look to Marissa Mayer’s incredibly brief maternity leave at Yahoo: two weeks.)
“It’s about managing all of your priorities, not necessarily balancing all of your priorities,” Puma said.
“As women, we have to make sacrifices, and if anyone tells you differently . . . well, they either have been extremely lucky, or [they’re] delusional,” said Nathalie Majorek, a doctor who ran her own practice in Beverly but left to head the medical startup MDCapsule.
Puma has seen Axcelis through its share of ups and downs. The CEO since 2002, she joined in 1996 when Axcelis was still part of Eaton Corp. The company now has nearly 30 offices and 800 employees worldwide – 450 to 500 in Beverly. Although it’s had a “tough few years,” she said — including layoffs and a move to outsourcing some services — it’s once again “poised for growth.”
“It’s a roller-coaster ride,” she said. “There’s something new every day. It’s not for the faint of heart.”
Armstrong is likewise passionate about her work – what she and others agreed is a key measure of success. The Copyright Clearance Center provides a way for researchers and academics to copyright their material, and then makes it available to businesses and colleges. It now employs about 300, compared to 30 when Armstrong began in 1989. She has been CEO since July 2007.
“They took a risk on me, and hopefully it paid off,” she said.
She has learned from trial and error, building a trustworthy and diversified team, avoiding negativity, and laying out accountability and authority.
As Armstrong put it, every time a woman in the corporate world does something positive, networks, or gives a reference, they’re “making a crack in the ceiling. Every single day, there are small breakthroughs. This is a marathon.”
Puma agreed that it’s important to push yourself “out of your comfort zone” and diversify, as well as to network and listen.
“There are no shortcuts in life, right?” she said. “It’s all about being focused and working really hard, whether you’re a man or a woman.”
Taryn Plumb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.