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As fans were buzzing about last spring’s Mad Men finale, Florence Quinn ’77 was sitting out the conversation. “I couldn’t watch that series. It was too painful because I lived it,” says Quinn, chief executive officer of the lifestyle public relations firm that bears her name. She had her own stories of a time when business was a man’s world and well-educated, talented and ambitious women struggled to get beyond the secretarial pool.

Quinn, along with a number of other Smith women roughly of her generation, broke through and became the real-life pioneers of the Mad Men era, defying cultural expectations to rise to the upper echelons of corporate America. Though their numbers were small, these “C-suite” alumnae helped move corporate culture forward, proving that women do have the skills to effectively and successfully lead business organizations. Today, there are lessons of grit and determination to be learned from their stories, especially as the number of women with the word  “chief” in their title—be it executive, operating or financial officer—remains stubbornly low.

“When I started out, there was a Girls Need Not Apply attitude,” says Peg Hogan Wyant ’64, who was told by the 10 companies she interviewed with after graduation that “we don’t take girls, except as secretaries.” Coming from Smith, she couldn’t grasp the message that women were incapable of leadership. “It never occurred to me there would be closed doors when I entered the work world,” she recalled. To make it meant working twice as hard and knocking down a few roadblocks, such as when she convinced Procter & Gamble to give her the same IQ test required of management-track male hirees. Her high scores landed her an interview and later a post in the brand management system—as the only woman—and from there, she worked her way up over the next 16 years into the executive suite. She’s now president and CEO of Grandin Properties and founder of a venture capital firm.

If women have more than proven their abilities as business leaders, why do corporations seem so reluctant to bring more women in at the top?

Women who made it into the executive ranks during the 1960s and 1970s often did so by downplaying gender or seizing the opportunities it seemed to present. “I remember thinking, you can ignore me as a woman, but you can’t ignore my numbers and how well I was performing,” says Lynn Fantom ’75, now about to retire as the founding CEO of ID Media. Pam Potter Flaherty ’66, on the other hand, embraced her “only woman” status.

“Being a woman was a challenge but also an opportunity because there were no expectations,” she recalls. “That meant I could create new models.” In a biased world, Dolores Kunda ’77 transformed her Latina status into an asset, heading up Lapiz (a division of Leo Burnett in Chicago) as an ad agency targeting the growing Hispanic market. “I created my job because I had expertise as a Latina woman,” says Kunda. “Yes, I was sitting on top of the pile, but I made the pile myself.”

This raises the question: If women like Kunda and Flaherty and Wyant (not to mention Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, General Motors’ Mary Barra, General Dynamics’ Phebe Novakovic ’79 and Disney’s new CFO, Christine McCarthy ’77) have more than proven their abilities as business leaders, why do corporations seem so reluctant to bring more women in at the top? Despite the gains, women still hold a mere 4.6 percent of the CEO spots at Fortune 500 and S&P 500 companies—a number that has remained stuck for years, according to research by Catalyst, Inc. In the other C-suite or executive-level positions—chief financial officer, chief operating officer and the like—the total hovers around 15 percent.

“It has to do with gender bias about who we expect leaders to be,” says Rachel Soares, director of research at Catalyst. “Close your eyes and picture a leader; I’ll bet you saw a white male with maybe a little gray at the temples. That image is pervasive across our society.”

The data is worse for women of color. Latina and African American women each occupy roughly 1 percent of senior executive posts, while Asian American women hold 1.7 percent. To make it, they had to overcome the combined hurdle of race and gender, as was clear earlier this year in the widely publicized sexual discrimination lawsuit Ellen Pao brought against a large Silicon Valley venture capital firm. The case, experts say, brought attention to the gender and racial disparities for women in upper management—and especially in male-dominated fields such as finance and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

The low number of women in the C-suite is even more surprising given reports about corporate successes when women are at the helm. According to a study by Colorado Women’s College at the University of Denver—Benchmarking Women’s Leadership in the United States, 2013—women leaders are outperforming their male counterparts in academia, entertainment, commercial banking, entrepreneurship, media, law, medicine, government and nonprofit. That’s true even in finance, where a tiny pool of women still struggle against an old boys’ club. A 2013 study by professional services firm Rothstein Kass, for example, showed that hedge funds managed by women (a scant 16 percent of the total) far outperformed those managed by men (8.95 percent returns for women compared to 2.69 percent generally).

Fathers are rewarded with higher pay and promotions when children arrive; women are seen as less dedicated to their work if they have a family.

Even Kevin O’Leary—the most biting shark on ABC’s hit show Shark Tank—has been widely quoted as saying that 55 percent of the companies in his investment portfolio are run by women, and 100 percent of them generate returns. “I’m making money with women, so I’m going to put more money into more women. It’s just working,” O’Leary has said.

Studies also show that men and women leading together nets better results. “Gender-blended teams from the boardroom to the shop floor are more likely to achieve substantially greater outcomes in problem solving and decision making than teams containing only men or only women,” says Iris Newalu, director of Smith’s Executive Education Program.

Another factor holding women back may be timing—professional and biological. Women advance toward upper management around the same time that they are beginning to have families. “At the entry level, the doors are wide open,” says Karen Miller ’84, CEO of Athena Global Investors, the investment company she founded. “By their mid-30s, we see the first wave of women being marginalized or holding back as they start to think about family decisions—getting married, having a child,” Miller says. “By their 40s, when the real opportunities for senior executive positions happen, we see so few women who reach that final pinnacle.” For some, she says, it’s a choice to opt out of the extra hours and assignments that may land them in the C-suite but could make family time scarce.

But Tracy Keogh ’83 urges women who are aiming for the corner office to stay the course. “If you can hang in there, it gets easier once you get up there,” says Keogh, executive vice president of human resources at Hewlett–Packard. “At that level, you can get more help, so you don’t have to do everything yourself in business and your personal life. You’ve mastered how to delegate and manage a team.”

In fact, the women who have reached the C-suite are those who embraced the juggling act of balancing demanding, high-profile jobs with family life. “When I had children, I made the choice to be home for dinner, but then I’d have to be back on the computer at 11 p.m.,” says Quinn. And Smith C-suite women agree with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s advice about the difference it can make to marry the right—read supportive and helpful—partner.

Still, studies show that the so-called motherhood penalty—the perception that women with families won’t want to do the heavy lifting that comes with executive positions, and the consequent lower pay—continues to stymie many would-be executives. “Fathers are rewarded with higher pay and promotions when children arrive; women are seen as less dedicated to their work if they have a family,” Soares says. In truth, a 2013 study by McKinsey & Company showed that 83 percent of women hope to reach the top level of management—slightly more than the number of male professionals surveyed. Still, according to research by University of Massachusetts Amherst sociology professor Michelle Budig, men get a 6 percent pay hike when they have children, while women’s earnings drop by 4 percent for each child they have.

“The motherhood penalty is a very real obstacle,” agrees Mahnaz Mahdavi, professor of economics at Smith and founding director of the college’s Center for Women and Financial Independence. “Most of the women CEOs gained their positions since 2002; it takes time for culture and attitudes to catch up with progress.”

While overt discrimination has long since become illegal, many say gender bias has either gone underground or taken the form of socializing via activities that don’t always appeal to or include women—golf, sporting events or going out for a beer. “I think men unconsciously circle the wagons and want to hire people who look like them,” says Wyant. “It’s about protection. As women enter, they safeguard their turf. Men fear, too, that if women move into traditionally male levels of power, the pay scale drops.”

The good news is that many C-suite women have made it their mission to bring women up the ladder. To tackle the motherhood issue, for instance, Anu Aiyengar ’91, a mergers and acquisitions executive at JPMorgan Securities, says her company has a mentoring program for upwardly mobile women who become pregnant. “We connect them with a senior executive who has navigated the challenges of juggling career and family and we hold panels for women with children,” she explains. These and other initiatives have increased retention and led to Morgan’s ranking as one of the best places for working mothers.

Even with the best intentions, though, it’s not always easy to help women advance, says Karen Miller, who also actively mentors women. “I get so much tentativeness from women. Many men have more confidence than they should, given what they are presenting to me. And women seem to have far less.” Iris Newalu is all too familiar with this confidence gap, noting that addressing it is a key feature of Smith’s leadership programs.

Fortunately, women’s leadership styles (and a growing emphasis on the benefits of diversity) are in sync with the evolving image of a CEO.

“The old model of a leader was military style—command and control,” Fantom says. “Today, the model that is being embraced by corporations and opinion leaders is someone who is collaborative, who acknowledges the contributions of the team, who doesn’t put too much distance between themselves and employees, and who can communicate and multitask; those are skills that women have long had.”

Tracy Keogh notes that the evidence supports the wisdom of increasing the ranks of women in management. “Study after study shows women make the best managers,” she says. “I’ve never met a senior woman who didn’t work incredibly hard.”

Questions of parity aside, then, maybe it’s simple self-interest that will turn the tide; that is, businesses may come to the conclusion that it’s in their own interest to start pushing women through the pipeline. “Without any question,” says Peg Wyant, “companies today are going to miss out on talent if they don’t include women in their upper ranks.”

Debra Michals, Ph.D., a regular contributor to the SAQ, teaches women’s and gender studies at Merrimack College and is writing a book on the history of women entrepreneurs. She writes the blog cancergirldiaries.com.

SAQ, Fall 2015