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Updated: February 7, 2022 editorial

Editorial: Thanking a generation of women leaders

Progress is slow. Progress is painful. Progress happens in fits and starts. What’s true as a nation is true when it comes to gender equity in business leadership – it can seem a long way off. As WBJ’s fifth annual Boardroom Gap investigation found, the percentage of women holding executive or board positions at prominent local companies remains at 37%, the same as last year. There were some notable gains – a 7-percentage-point gain in women leaders at the region’s public companies, as well as the number of companies without any female leadership dropping from eight down to two. Yet, after two years of hyperfocus on diversity, one would have expected more.

Still, we shouldn’t let how far there is to go let us overlook how much progress has been made, especially the many, many brave and talented women leaders who brought us to this point. When WBJ started The Boardroom Gap investigation five years ago, the percentage of women in business leadership was 33%. A 4-percentage-point gain isn’t world-changing, but it is a small gain in the right direction. Over the course of two to three generations, the region has gone from women in business leadership being an extremely rare occurrence to now having a substantial number of women in top positions, and we pause to reflect on the impact a handful of departing leaders had on the economy.

In January, Laurie Leshin, the first female president at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, accepted a new position to be the first woman leader of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In her eight years, Leshin raised WPI’s profile, establishing an outpost in Boston, starting a record $500-million fundraising campaign, and launching The Global School. Her focus on diversity turned WPI’s student body from being male-dominated to now nearing equity, as the 2021 class was 44% female. Another higher ed leader moving on is Paula Rooney, who has led Dean College in Franklin as president for 27 years. Her steady hand has helped the school remain vibrant during a tumultuous time for the industry, adding bachelor’s degree programs to its associate degrees offerings.

In the nonprofit sector, Jan Yost is retiring after 23 years with The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, which she’s led since its founding in 2000. Since that time, the organization has awarded grants of more than $50 million for Central Massachusetts and has assets valued at $95 million. Yost will pass the baton to Amie Shei, the foundation’s vice president of programs. Long-time State Sen. Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester) in January announced she wouldn’t seek re-election, ending 25 years on Beacon Hill, with a sharp focus on health care and education. In 2017, she became the second woman chosen to serve as president of the Massachusetts Senate.

These four are just a sampling of the women leaders who have had a tremendous influence on the region’s economy over many years. Their work has been groundbreaking, and collectively they and many others contributed fresh ideas and perspectives making our business community stronger, while paving the way for the next generation of leaders to pick up where they left off.

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