February 19, 2018
The Boardroom Gap: Feeling marginalized

Boardroom Gap: Central Mass. businesswomen in leadership feel marginalized

Photo | Edd Cote
Kate Sharry, owner and president of Group Benefits Strategies in Auburn.

Interrupted, ignored, made to feel like they don't exactly belong.

"I've come across it when I won't even get eye contact during a meeting," said Kate Sharry, the owner and president of Group Benefits Strategies in Auburn. "That by itself can be intimidating."

A Worcester Business Journal study into the gender makeup of the leadership in 75 Central Massachusetts organizations – detailed in the Feb. 5 issue – showed women held 33 percent of senior executive positions and seats on boards of directors/trustees, but that number was skewed by a handful of social service nonprofits. At the region's 17 public companies, 8 percent of senior executives and 16 percent of board members were women in their latest reporting year; both of those rates are below the state and national averages.

For the women in Central Massachusetts who do hold positions of power in business, they are often one of only a handful of women – if not the only one – in the room for important meetings and in executive offices, where they feel they aren't treated the same as their male counterparts.

"Some generations are just not used to seeing women in power positions," said Susan West Engelkemeyer, the president of Nichols College in Dudley since 2011 and one of the first two female deans at Ithaca College earlier in her career. "I do think it's changing."

A slow-changing environment

Susan Mailman took over from her father as the president and owner of Coghlin Electrical Contractors and Coghlin Network Services in Worcester in 2003. She had worked at the businesses since 1985, but still said fitting in among those in the industry hasn't come easy.

"If I'm a son in one of those business, you're more a part of the club," she said.

Only 23 percent of women in a 2017 study by New York City management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. said their company's management addresses gender-biased behavior as it happens.

Those who study the issue attribute the slow-changing ways to an insular male-dominated environment where women are still looking to make inroads. The global advocacy group Women in the Boardroom, based in New York City, found in a survey last year that 90 percent of women felt that board searches were dominated by male networks.

"You do have to hold your ground," said Susan Adams, a Bentley University professor who's conducted research on gender gaps in business for the women advocacy group The Boston Club.

Making their presence known

Laurie Leshin, who in 2014 became the first female president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, spent her early career as a space scientist at NASA, where she was a member of the Mars Curiosity rover team.

"Especially at NASA, there were many, many meetings when I was the only woman in the room," Leshin said. "You didn't notice it at first, but after a while, you think, 'Really?'"

Mailman said she's seen women talked over by men in meetings and has found women need to become more proactive and better engaged. They can't, for example, continue casual post-meeting talks in the men's room with much of the rest of the members.

"You have to speak up and then speak over the men sometimes," she said, "and women need to support each other in the boardroom."

Sharry is the new chairwoman of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce board of directors, the third woman to hold the position. She said she still occasionally senses a need to win over male clients who might not be used to working with a woman.

"I sometimes feel like I need to prove myself each time [we meet]," she said, describing her feeling some people may never get used to working with female business leaders.

In her industry, Sharry has often been the only woman in a boardroom, or nearly so. She's learned to rely on feedback from other women, she said, and has made a point of asking a question in a meeting sometimes with the express purpose of making her presence known. She also expressed thanks to several men at local businesses who've supported her professionally.

A gap between the genders in the boardroom still needs to be closed though, Sharry said. Corporate coaches have told her to consider how she sits in a meeting and to give a "masculine energy," a tip she finds insulting.

"I don't want to have to sit there and think of what type of gender energy I'm bringing out," Sharry said. "I want to be focused on the task at hand."

A changing dynamic

Leshin said outspoken woman leaders played an important role in her career and life development. Her mother took her to National Organization for Women meetings when she was 5 or 6.

"They were trying to pave the way for people like me to be successful people," said Leshin, who called herself fortunate to have both male and female mentors in her career.

Judith Nitsch, a WPI graduate who founded Boston-based Nitsch Engineering in 1989, said she's absolutely found women are more likely to be interrupted or ignored at a meeting, but she has grown used to male-dominated environments. The male-to-female student ratio at WPI her freshman year in 1971 was 25-to-1.

"Being around boys never really bothered me," she said, describing a male-dominated but supportive environment at WPI. "For every person who was a maybe a problem, there were 99 who were advocates."

Nitsch ended up becoming WPI's first female alumna trustee the same year she founded Nitsch Engineering and now serves on the board of Pennoni Associates, a Philadelphia engineering firm.

Nitsch recalled an instance three years ago when the Pennoni board was about to make a vote without discussion on new corporate officers at the company, where Nitsch is the only female board member. Nitsch noticed all 14 candidates were men, and was the only one to call it a problem.

"I think these are fine candidates, but think of the message you're sending to everyone in your firm," Nitsch recalled saying. "No one had realized that they had done it."

The chairman of the Pennoni board, company founder Chuck Pennoni, has had a close look at changing dynamics on boards through decades of serving as a director. Pennoni, 80, said he's served on 45 public and private boards, and chaired half of them.

"The old adage of the smoke-filled rooms was true. I remember going into a room where it was all men smoking cigars," he said. "Those days are gone. I remember the three-martini lunch days. Those days are gone too."

Diversity has become a goal of boards everywhere, and a dynamic between the genders has changed recently too, Pennoni said.

"I have not been on a board in the last 25 years where the discussion of diversity hasn't been significant," he said.

Michael Angelini, chairman at the Worcester law firm Bowditch & Dewey and a member of the Hanover Insurance Group board of directors, said he's seen a major shift in how boards operate in the quarter-century he's served in that role for various organizations.

"There's a high level of consciousness that diversity on boards – diversity in every way – is desirable," said Angelini, who added having a mix of genders, races, cultural backgrounds and competing thoughts benefits an institution.

Angelini, who said he's served on 15 to 20 boards during his career, said boards today are far more about debating and deliberating than they were in the past about rubber-stamping and glad-handing.

"Boards act much more inclusively, much more cooperatively, more much collegiately than they used to," he said. "These are serious jobs with serious responsibilities. It's no longer a club."

At the current rates, the GAO report estimated the gender gap on boards will be erased by around 2065.

Read the entire Boardroom Gap series

Feb. 5 edition

– WBJ's Findings: Women vastly underrepresented in Central Mass. corporate leadership

The Pay Gap: Central Mass. male executives make $1.3M vs. $573K for women

Editorial Opinion: The importance of diversity

– Letter from the Editor: Can't keep doing the same thing and expect different results

Feb. 19 edition

- Feeling Marginalized: Central Mass. businesswomen who've sat in positions of power say they don't get the same automatic credibility as men

Gender Diversity = Profits: Companies with a greater mix of women in leadership perform better

March 5 edition

Narrowing the Boardroom Gap: Financial, legislative and cultural pressures are creating more gender diverse business leadership

The Best Candidate Gets the Job: Diverse candidate pools lead to diverse companies, leading local firms say

Letter from the Editor: Now comes the hard part

Viewpoint Opinion: Women of color need to break the concrete ceiling

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