School of Management Dean Cathy Minehan presented at the Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH) Women Leaders Program on May 23rd, 2012. Below is the full transcript of her speech.
Thank you, Digger. It is a pleasure to be with all of you this morning and to be part of your meeting today. I believe that I can speak for all of the faculty and administration of Simmons College in welcoming you to the College-as we often say we are the best kept secret on the Fenway, unfortunately not something to which we necessarily aspire. So I hope that you will find this location, and the expertise of our faculty and staff, some of whom you will meet today, sufficient to bring you back. What I would like to do in this keynote address is to first share a few thoughts on the status of women in the work force. Then I went to comment a bit about my own career, and finally share some thoughts about the second career I am enjoying here at Simmons. I hope to end with some time to take your questions.
In conversation with Digger before this presentation, he noted that your group of women BBH executives is a thriving global organization bringing women together for both networking and education. We believe strongly in the efficacy of groups like yours at the Simmons School of Management and see women's leadership training as an important element in creating an environment that allows women to thrive and succeed.
Regrettably, such success is not a foregone conclusion even more than 40 years after women began entering the workforce in increasing numbers as a result of better education and the prevalence of birth control that enabled them to better plan their futures. Today while women make up the majority of graduate students in most specialties, and fill pipelines in a wide variety of professions, there are very few at the top. Women continue to earn less money than men in identical positions. During the recession, industries with largely male workers like construction and manufacturing lost jobs at a faster rate than others, but during the recovery jobs with higher female participation, like public service, government and school positions were harder hit. Male employment has rebounded, but female employment is just now beginning to grow again. With more women functioning as heads of households, this long period of job loss has meant suffering for families and children as well. And just to make things interesting, the political and social rhetoric around hot button issues for women has gotten so nasty that people talk about a "war on women" both here in the US and more globally. Wherever you might stand on these issues politically or socially, the debate about them does not make this a comfortable time for women in general, and for educated and motivated women like yourselves in particular.
This is not what we thought would happen 44 years ago when I started my career. We thought the big issues had been tackled-we were educated, we could control our fertility, we could and did compete with the guys and we would succeed. We were convinced we could have it all-career, family, success-and some of us did. But for many it became clearer with time that without significant sacrifice of one thing or another, having it all was very hard. And it also became clear that the barriers to success were not always barriers that could be seen-they were part of the culture often unintended but very real nonetheless. We saw very promising women leave the workforce, ostensibly for family reasons but more fundamentally because of the difficulty of breaking through the barriers they found. Companies that had spent countless hours and large sums recruiting high potential women saw their investments walking out the door in discouragement. Hiring women was not the issue; retaining and advancing them was. And without those women, businesses were losing out on the best minds and great sources of innovation and creativity. What happened here and how can we get things back on track?
I certainly do not have the answers, but the formation of groups like yours, and a related focus on leadership training aimed at women, does work to create the internal networks and skills development that can be very powerful in helping women to manage through good times and bad. You may have seen the comments that Jack Welch made recently regarding women's groups in companies-the so-called "victims groups." Perhaps that is the reason why when a picture of the senior leadership of General Electric appeared on the front page of the Sunday New York Times business section while Jack was the CEO of that company, it included not a single woman among the 30 or so individuals in the photo. I would wager that was not because GE did not hire women who were "winners" but because the culture of the company made it hard for them to succeed. And I do not doubt that a price was paid by GE for that lack of success.
I graduated from college in the dark ages-1968- just as campuses were erupting with violence related to the dissent over the Viet Nam war. I was a political science major, but I was too deeply in debt to even think about demonstrating. I wanted to work for a few years and then go back to graduate school to become a professor. I began interviewing with the few financial institutions that managed to find their way on campus only to be told that while they had management training programs, women were not accepted into them. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York recruited me as a computer programmer, and after I passed the test for the position, I asked about their management training program-they had never had a woman in that program either, but they were giving it some thought. So they sent me around for another set of interviews, and ultimately hired me. My first stop was in bank examinations, traveling as an assistant bank examiner-many years later when I left the New York Fed and came to Boston someone unearthed notes from one hiring interview in the examinations department. The notes were complimentary but ended with a phrase in capital letters "THIS COULD BE TROUBLE." Undoubtedly this was true at times but for the most part the Fed and I got along really well. Instead of working for a few years and going back to graduate school, I stayed for 39 years, got my MBA degree at night and worked my way up gradually, becoming President of the Boston Fed in 1994.
I have often asked myself why I succeeded when the road seemed to get tougher and tougher for so many. In part, it was because the Fed really was more of a meritocracy than many firms even today. They did not pay as well as the rest of Wall Street and were willing to look beyond the issues of religion, gender and ultimately race to find qualified employees. And if they found a winner they worked to keep her-I was promoted twice while on maternity leave. So my choice in employer was fortunate for me. Indeed, when I came to Boston as the chief operating officer of the Boston Fed, I was the first woman ever in that position at any Fed, and a very rare transplant at a senior level from one Fed to another. This was not the result of a formal management training program, but rather the result of my picking up the phone and calling the President of the Boston Fed about the job when it became apparent that his COO was intending to retire. I say this not to pat myself on the back but to comment on the culture of the Fed which made taking such an action less risky than it might have been elsewhere. Reserve Banks reward talent-they aren't perfect by any means but they do have a culture that reveres competency.
But another part of the story is the fact that in the first few years that I worked at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York I literally fell in love with what I was doing and the special nature of the Fed in the financial markets specifically and the economy more generally. I could not imagine a better place to work, especially during the many crises of the 1980s and 90's when things large and small-Latin American debt crises and computer failures-made every day, week and year ever more interesting. And when I got the chance to become a Bank President, and a member of the Open Market Committee I realized a dream of being a true policy maker that I doubt I even knew I had earlier in my career.
So find the job that you love and the right employer and everything will turn out fine? Hardly; the road is long and requires more than a few sacrifices. Work-life balance is often one of them. In my view, balancing the demands of work and life is often touted, nearly never realized, and usually involves an ever-changing sense of what the right balance point is. I used to think about life in four mental boxes-one for work, one for family, a box for personal time to exercise and gets one's hair done etc, and a box for community activities. I thought that the key was to be solidly in one mental box or the other-that is to focus on what you are doing at the time regardless of how little time you might have. The old quality versus quantity argument. This was never easy to do, and when things were pressing either at home or at work it was nearly impossible. And with today's technology that keeps all of us connected at all times, it may actually be impossible-but that does not mean that trying to achieve some form of balance is not a necessary part of the equation.
What else is necessary? Supportive relationships at home certainly help-a vast understatement to be sure- but I have found particularly later in my career that relationships with other women professionals are important as well. When I first arrived in Boston, I met a group of women in the Massachusetts Women's Forum-all very senior professionals in different fields but all at least my peers. It was eye-opening to have friends with whom one could share experiences and challenges both personally and professionally. It was that group of women who acted as coaches when I was going through the selection process for the Boston Fed --you may think that it is the proverbial "no-brainer" to accept when offered the opportunity to be in the running for a senior job like the Presidency of the Boston Fed. For me, however, becoming President was never in my sights; I was an operations executive and the COO job that I had was the one I had set my sights on. It took a group of women from the Forum to knock some sense into my head, and start me on the path to being a policy maker that I have never regretted.
A couple of other career thoughts. First, I have always found that taking the broadest view of whatever you are doing usually provides you with the perspective needed to make the tough decisions when necessary. People often have a tendency to put their arms around the tasks they are given, master them and then defend their territory. I have always found that one needs to take a step back, understand how those tasks fit into the wider picture and make change if that is necessary. Change makes most people uncomfortable, but if you really see the broader picture change is much easier to introduce, accept, and embrace. Second, while managing your boss is important, and managing those who work for you is vital, managing one's peers is often a critical factor in getting ahead. In my view, unless one is respected by one's peers in an organization, long term success is very difficult to achieve. Organizations do not work solely in silos, at least not successful ones, and respect across the major divisions of a business is necessary for a person to be seen and accepted as a rising leader. Finally, never underestimate the sheer power of luck. Being in the right place at the right time often dictates who gets ahead and who does not. That can be managed, but in my experience thinking that you can plot every step is foolish. So I have always concentrated on doing the best job that I can at the task at hand, viewing it as broadly as I can and working to be a leader among my peers, and then let luck, or providence or serendipity or whatever you might want to call it take its course.
I left the Fed in June 2007. My last FOMC meeting was what I like to call the last "normal" policy meeting before the financial crisis reared its ugly head. So I either missed the best few years of being a central banker out of the last 50 or so, or I got out just in time. At the time, I had just turned 60 and I wanted to find a way to work productively for the next 20 years of my life. That could not happen at the Fed-I would have been required to retire at 65, and I knew that the longer I waited the less attractive I might be as a candidate for corporate board work. I thought the way I wanted to spend the rest of my working life was as a for-profit and not-for-profit board member, and I knew given board age limits that the sooner after 60 I made the move the better my prospects would be. And frankly I wanted to leave on my own terms rather than being shown the door in retirement.
So I opened a little office over on Arlington Street, around the corner from Newbury St. and overlooking the Public Garden. A great location and walkable from my home. I hired an assistant-a former Fed employee who had retired- took on a variety of activities, hired interns to help me do the many things like power point presentations and regression analyses that I had not done in a long time myself, and settled in for over four years. A perfect life or so it seemed, and one that was very comfortable. But when the headhunter came to see me about this Simmons position, I found myself listening very carefully. It offered an opportunity to immerse myself in something that had fascinated me for most of my career, and that had especially engaged me as I saw my daughter finish business school and take her first job. The mantra of the Simmons School of Management is "educating women to positions of power and principled leadership." I thought that I had achieved such a position in my career but I found I was intrigued by the possibility of being a part of helping other women do the same.
This first year has been amazing-a real challenge in many ways. The life of a Dean is interesting, nestled as you are between the faculty on one side and the College administration on the other. I had been on a number of College and University boards in my years at the Fed and I always thought of the Deans as people who just did not get it. Now I am one of those people, and I see how very different the perspectives between faculty and administration can be. But I am finding the work so very interesting, the students amazing and the sense of accomplishment very real when things actually get done. And there is something about the tradition of Simmons-founded as it was by the legacy of a very wealthy male Bostonian who wanted a school founded to "educate women to be self-sufficient." That was in 1870 or so, but that goal continues to resonate today.
In sum, I think we face very real challenges in realizing the dreams all of us had 40 years ago for women succeeding in the work place. It is a hard and continuing task and one that deserves constant attention by both the women who want to succeed and the businesses who want them to be successful. I have been fortunate in my career choice, and even luckier to have fallen in love with what I was doing for 39 years, and now with my second career in academia at Simmons. I hope that in sharing a few stories with you I have imparted a bit of what I have learned over the years, but I also know that I will never stop learning and trying to help other women to achieve their own dreams.