When Gender is a Factor

 

By Barbara A. Walsh
 

Thirty years ago the term “glass ceiling” was a novel and unexplored notion.

Yet women like Cheryl Booker Gorman ’74 learned firsthand that they faced challenges in the corporate world. Progress in gender equity has been made in recent years, but more is needed, alumnae say. When Gorman worked as a market research analyst for Rhode Island banks in the late 1970s, she searched for mentors. “Finding women role models was difficult,” Gorman said. “Most of the women still worked as tellers. All the books said ‘dress for success,’ but even that was hard. Some of the women at the banks still wore white gloves.” Gorman had no choice but to rely on male role models and mentors. Throughout her banking career, she was often the sole female manager.

Despite making personal gains in her career and being named senior vice president of retail banking for a Boston firm in 2002, Gorman learned that the bank still relied on a 1950s mentality. “I was the only senior executive who was a female,” Gorman said. “It was an extremely white brotherhood, and it just wore me down to the point it started affecting
my health.”

After leaving the bank in 2006, Gorman was left with self-doubt, wondering: “What could I have done differently?”

Now senior vice president of retail banking at Harvard University Employee Credit Union, Gorman said it took several months to restore her confidence, which got a boost from a local women’s leadership group. “These women were executive leaders from all over Boston,” she said. “They had shared experiences of working in male-dominated companies, and they helped me understand that a lot of issues I faced at the bank were not related to me.”

If banking was male-dominated, consider the seafood industry. When Kim Gorton ’87 took over Slade Gorton & Co. in 2006, the multi-million-dollar distributor founded by her grandfather, she had to deal with sniping from critics who doubted that a woman could run a male-dominated seafood business. “Don’t you have any brothers?” her male customers wanted to know, she recalls.

“There were definitely people who questioned my ability to lead, who felt I couldn’t do it because I was a woman, a mother, or not strong enough,” Gorton said.

But rather than dwell on criticism, Gorton lets her passion and knowledge speak for itself. “It’s about being confident and credible,” said Gorton, who has worked for her family’s business since 1989.

Or it can even be about making your gender an attribute, says Betsy Morgan ’90.

Morgan entered the workforce nearly 15 years after Gorman went into banking, and while The Huffington Post chief executive never had to leave a job because of gender bias, Morgan has experienced some awkward moments during her career.

“I’ve never felt I was turned down for a job or opportunity because I was a woman,” Morgan said. “But I’ve found myself in some odd positions, like getting propositioned or walking into a room with a bunch of men, who say, ‘Oh, we expected to see a guy do this job.’”

Rather than be insulted, Morgan used her gender to her advantage, she said; her style and attitude provided a contrast to many of her older male colleagues.

“To me it’s been a benefit being the only woman and youngest person in the room,” said Morgan, who worked as general manager of CBSNews.com before taking the helm at The Huffington Post in 2007. “I stood out from the pack in every way, and that’s one of the reasons I’ve been successful.”

 
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