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Skirting the old-boy network, updated

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Fidelity Investments CEO Abigail Johnson is the sole woman with the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership group.
Fidelity Investments CEO Abigail Johnson is the sole woman with the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership group.Bill Brett

It has been a thrilling week for Boston’s business image. The city won General Electric’s heart by packaging itself as a New Age city of agile startups (although promising tax credits and infrastructure plums worth $145 million didn’t hurt either).

Then again, we also learned that reinvention goes only so far.

What's supposedly the most powerful business group in town — the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership — looks a lot like not-so-dear Olde Boston. As revealed by the Globe's Jon Chesto, it comprises 14 white male CEOS, whose ages range from early-50s to mid-70s. GE chief executive Jeffrey R. Immelt, 59, will feel right at home with this crowd.

Abigail Johnson — the CEO of Fidelity Investments and granddaughter of the company's founder — is the only woman with a seat at this select table. There is no person of color.


The makeup of this elite group will likely stay this way if "small businesses and entrepreneurs don't have a seat," said Pam McDermott, founder of McDermott Ventures, a consulting firm that represents CEOs and business owners.

She's right. Way back in a 1993 business column, I noted that as long as the ticket to entry to an elite business group is a title like "CEO," it works against women, because there aren't enough of us in those top spots. More than two decades later, there still aren't.

In that long-ago column, I quoted Ellen Lutch Bender, then director of health care strategies at a Boston law firm, who mused: "What is it about our culture that allows women to be viewed as smart, competent, and a percentage of some ratio when it comes to representation — but keeps us at arm's length when it comes to power and status?"

Looping back this week to ask if she had seen the photo spread of men who represent the "Partnership," Bender, now president and CEO of her own health care advisory firm, replied, "I did see it, and it's stunning. So how has Boston changed, exactly?"

It has — a little. For example, women CEOs head three major Boston hospitals, and the president of Harvard is a woman.


Boston's political face has also gotten slightly more diverse.

Deval Patrick, the first black governor of Massachusetts, served two terms. Governor Charlie Baker, who succeeded him, chose a woman to run with him as lieutenant governor and has named a cadre of women to top policy spots. Elizabeth Warren, the first woman to represent Massachusetts in the Senate, is a national phenomenon. Two other women now represent Massachusetts in Congress. The new president of the Boston City Council is a woman and the first Asian-American to hold that position.

But in the corporate world — including the newspaper world — the status quo prevails. Why?

"Because they don't have to be responsive the way the political establishment must be," said Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge and Harvard Law professor. "Fortune 500 companies, big law firms, they all have substantial glass ceilings. Political glass ceilings are more permeable because they have to be more responsive to public pressure."

GE was supposedly attracted to the youth and energy of the Seaport Innovation District. "We want to be at the center of an ecosystem that shares our aspirations," declared Immelt.

Too bad so many key players in Boston's official corporate ecosystem are still baby-boomers or older white guys.

The Partnership's two nonprofit representatives are men: David Torchiana, 61, CEO of Partners HealthCare, a network of Harvard-affiliated hospitals and physician groups; and Roger Crandall, 51, CEO at MassMutual but also vice chair of Boston 2024, the organizing committee behind the now abandoned effort to bring a summer Olympics here. There's also room for New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, 74, and for John Fish, 55, who owns a construction company.


A nationwide search for the next head of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce led to James Rooney, 57. He was replaced as head of the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center by David Gibbons, 66.

The message from the Globe photo spread of men who run the Partnership jumped across the generations. "My phone has been ringing off the hook. My e-mail box is full," said Jesse Mermell, 36, executive director of the Alliance for Business Leadership, which represents the city's young, progressive business constituency. "Professional young women look at that picture and roll their eyes, quite frankly."

I'm not sure what will change the view — maybe a nudge from Baker or Boston Mayor Marty Walsh? — but I do know it will take more than eye-rolling.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.