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Leveling the field

Simmons’s MBA program - the only one in the country exclusively for women - may be more relevant than ever

Cathy Minehan, a former Fed official, is dean of Simmons's school of management. Cathy Minehan, a former Fed official, is dean of Simmons's school of management. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Katie Johnston
Globe Staff / December 4, 2011
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When Cathy Minehan was applying for financial services jobs in New York as a new college graduate in 1968, she would routinely ask her interviewers about management training. And they would routinely tell her: “We have a management training program, but we don’t accept women.’’

Minehan, who went on to become the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and is now dean of the management school at Simmons College, has seen women’s roles expand greatly in the corporate world since then. But they’re still far from being on a level playing field with men. In Massachusetts, female executive officers make up just 9.6 percent of executive teams at the 100 largest public companies in the state, down from 10.9 percent in 2007, according to the Boston Club, a women’s business organization.

“Forty years ago we thought 40 years from now this would be a problem that would be solved, and it isn’t,’’ says Minehan.

At Simmons since August, she hopes to become part of the solution by attracting more students to the women’s college, and particularly to its MBA program, the only one in the country designed exclusively for women.

Juliette Mayers, the executive director of multicultural marketing for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, got her MBA from Simmons in 2001. The confidence she gained in a women-only environment - as well as an awareness of how gender influences interactions - has helped her become a stronger negotiator, both at Blue Cross and on nonprofit boards.

“With women, it’s almost like power is a dirty word,’’ Mayers says. “And at Simmons, it’s embraced.’’

Enrollment in the Simmons MBA program has been rising slowly over the past few years, from 195 in 2005 to 207 this year. The program, which has been around since 1975, has survived because there is still a strong need to teach women how to get ahead in hard-nosed business environments dominated by men, Minehan says.

Women account for more than half of entry-level professionals in the largest American industrial corporations, but only 14 percent of the seats on executive committees, according to research by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and the women’s advocacy group Catalyst Inc. The odds of advancement for men are about double what they are for women, McKinsey found.

In Massachusetts, only 27 percent of the 100 largest public companies have women among their highest paid executives, a slightly lower rate than in 2005 and 2006, according to the Boston Club. The number of female directors has also fallen, from 96 in 2009, or 11.3 percent of all directors, to 93, or 11.1 percent, this year.

There’s a solid business reason companies should pay attention to the women in their ranks, Minehan points out. Companies that routinely have at least three women on their boards outperform those with a low representation of women by double digit percentages in several measures of profitability, according to Catalyst.

“There’s a correlation between how well women have been able to do at corporations and how well the corporations have been doing,’’ Minehan says.

Simmons’s focus on corporate social responsibility, ethical leadership, and nonprofit management has also been attracting more students as interest in these areas grows, Minehan says. Julia Jackson, 29, who is graduating with an MBA this month, left a career in international public health to hone her business skills at Simmons. Jackson says she didn’t fully realize the many differences in men’s and women’s communication styles until she took a class on it at Simmons.

“Women don’t hype themselves up, and they don’t point out when they’ve accomplished something,’’ she says.

In class, Jackson also learned that women don’t tend to pursue an opportunity unless they think they’re at least 80 percent qualified for it, whereas men will go for something even if they think they’re only 30 percent qualified. Armed with this knowledge, Jackson landed an internship at a high-powered, male-dominated Boston consulting firm last summer, something she says she probably wouldn’t have thought of pursuing before taking the class.

Unlike some MBA programs, Simmons’s program focuses on its part-time students - which usually make up about 70 percent of the program, although the share of part-timers has dropped to 60 percent this year as people flock back to school to get out of, or ahead of, an anemic job market. The school’s MBA graduates have a 93 percent job placement rate, and its part-time students, many of them working women, have access to the same curriculum and faculty that it offers full-time students.

Minehan has big plans to increase the school’s visibility, by speaking at events, starting a student-run magazine to publish articles on faculty research, and recruiting high-profile professors.

Her own high profile as the former head of the Boston Fed should help. It was the Federal Reserve Bank of New York - the first employer that agreed to accept her as a management trainee - that launched her career in the first place. She was the first woman in the Fed’s management training program, and she earned her MBA from New York University while working there. When Minehan left 23 years later to come to Boston, someone dug up the notes a New York Fed vice president had written in her file before she was hired. In capital letters, it said: “This could be trouble.’’

Katie Johnston is a Globe reporter. She can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.

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