February 18, 2019
Focus on women in leadership

The Boardroom Gap: Central Mass. businesses slightly improve inclusion of women in leadership

Photo | Matt Wright
Worcester insurer Fallon Health grew the percentage of women in its leadership from 32 to 40 in the last year. Its executive suite now includes (from left) Chief Communications Officer Christine Cassidy; Chief Medical Officer Carolyn Langer; Chief Operating Officer Emily West; Senior Vice President, Strategy & Business Development Mary Ritter; and Chief Human Resources Officer Jill Lebow.

The national gender diversity advocacy group Catalyst uses a pyramid to illustrate how women work in ever-shrinking numbers the further up the company ladder they go.

As a woman might rise to middle management, upper management and perhaps to a board of directors or even CEO, she's likely in an almost exclusively male-dominated environment. She may be the tip of the pyramid and be the only woman in the room.

The pyramid Catalyst describes wouldn't tell the tale at Worcester insurer Fallon Health.

More than 80 percent of the 1,200 employees at Fallon's offices are female. That extends to more than 70 percent in management. Richard Burke, Fallon's president and CEO since 2015, has made sure gender diversity extends to the insurer's executive team, as well.

Five of Fallon's 10 executives are female, including two hired in the past year who replaced male predecessors. To Burke, having an equal number of women in leadership provides an example to the company's broader workforce, even as he continues seeking the best candidates no matter the gender.

"Talent is gender-neutral," Burke said.

These efforts made by Fallon are illustrative of the small step forward taken by Central Massachusetts business leadership in the last year to become more female inclusive.

As a follow-up to its The Boardroom Gap series from February 2018, the Worcester Business Journal has combed through nearly 1,600 names of directors and executives at 75 Central Massachusetts public and private companies, colleges, hospitals, financial institutions and social service nonprofits to gauge the mix of men and women in their positions of power.

Among all those entities, women made up 35 percent – up from 33 percent last year – of executive suites and boards of directors.

Women continue to be vastly outnumbered by men at Central Mass. public companies, at lower percentages than state and national averages. Those ranks include four so-called zero-zeros in the shaming parlance of gender diversity advocates: companies with no women in board or executive positions. Ayer energy systems manufacturer AMSC, Athol tool maker L.S. Starrett, Acton drug testing firm Psychemedics and Southborough information technology firm Virtusa were the public companies with that distinction this year.

Women made up one-fourth or less of power positions at 22 financial institutions and private companies. The proportion between men and women was better in health care – a more female-dominated industry overall – where women made up 32 percent of leadership positions, and in higher education, where the rate was 39 percent.

Only social service nonprofits had at least an even number of women, a total skewed by the YWCA of Central Massachusetts, where all 30 of its board members are female.

Women are still far outnumbered by men in top administrative roles, such as CEO, president or executive director. Only 12 of the 75 institutions analyzed by WBJ are led by a woman, an increase from nine last year.

"I would not expect the needle to move much in one year," said Danna Greenberg, a professor of organizational behavior at Babson College in Wellesley who closely studies gender diversity. "Gender inequity will take years to re-balance, and it takes persistent work on the part of researchers and journalists to get the attention of companies and policymakers to support change," she said.

Notably, three Central Mass. institutions in the past year appointed a female leader to replace a male predecessor.

Insulet, an Acton medical device company, promoted Shacey Petrovic to CEO last month. At the Boys & Girls Club of MetroWest, Chris Duane was promoted to president. Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester named Ava Jo Collins its interim CEO, which the hospital said appears to be its first ever female leader.

Small steps of progress

Like Fallon, other Central Massachusetts organizations have increased gender diversity when opportunities arose.

Cognex, a Natick manufacturer, appointed a female director last February, and promoted a woman to a senior vice president role. Both are firsts for the company since at least 1995, according to Cognex's filings with the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission.

Milford manufacturer Waters Corp. hired its second top-level female executive in the past 18 years in 2017 when it replaced its departed male CFO with a woman. The firm cited other actions it took, including launching a gender diversity network, unconscious bias training and hosting a diversity event.

Among social services nonprofits – where women are already more likely to find themselves at the boardroom table – steps were taken to move further ahead.

At the United Way of North Central Massachusetts, six of eight newly appointed members are women, while the United Way of Central Massachusetts in Worcester appointed a female board president last year. The Boys & Girls Club of Worcester appointed a female executive to replace a male.

Open Sky Community Services, a Worcester social services nonprofit formed last year following the merger of Alternatives Unlimited and The Bridge of Central Massachusetts, has women in half of its top executive roles and board seats, and for 16 of its 22 top managers.

Ken Bates, Open Sky's president and CEO, said the high rate of women in leadership roles reflects the agency's predominantly female 1,300 employees.

"We're a very diverse organization to begin with, and a diversity of viewpoints helps us around the table," Bates said. "It helps make us better and have more thoughtful decisions."

Missed opportunities

Not a lot of turnover exists in the span of a year or two, but several entities – particularly those with few, if any, women in leading roles – missed opportunities to diversify their upper ranks.

Holliston biotech firm Biostage appointed a female board member last November, its first since at least 2014, but five of six new board members added over the year are male. At software company SeaChange International, two men left the board in 2017 and were replaced by two other men.

"A lot of it is, they're happy where they are," Susan Adams, who teaches leadership and management at Bentley University in Waltham, said of companies appearing reluctant to create more gender diversity in their leadership.

One solution to create more gender-diverse boards of directors would be to add more board seats to open up spots to women, Adams said.

Marlborough medical device company Oxford Immunotec did add a 10th seat to its board last year, but instead of adding a second female member, it added a ninth male.

At Marlborough pharmaceutical company Sunovion, which has an all-male board, one male replaced another when a board seat opened up. The company did, however, appoint a woman to a top executive post in 2017. Sunovion, as a private company, doesn't disclose as many details as a public one, but it didn't have any women in top executive roles – referred to in regulatory filings as named executives officers – when it was a public company from 1997 to 2009.

Sunovion said in a statement it has women in top leadership positions across the company, including vice presidents of major functions, and it has initiatives underway to develop women into leadership roles.

The broader picture

Public companies across the state are also making incremental progress.

At the state's 100 largest public companies, women represent 14 percent of executives, up from 12 percent a year before and 9 percent a decade prior, according the advocacy group The Boston Club. Women made up 21 percent of board members last year, versus 19 percent last year and 11 percent a decade earlier.

"We had a big leap last year, comparatively," said Adams, who conducts research for The Boston Club.The Boston Club found 42 percent of independent director vacancies in the past year were filled by women – a sharp rise from 29 percent a year prior. But the group warned such progress may be fleeting, as it followed two years of declines for that statistic.

Signs show mixed progress nationally.

A report issued last month from Catalyst, a website advocating for women in positions of power, found women make up 37 percent of mid-level managers at Fortune 500 companies, but less than 27 percent of executive-level managers. Only 11 percent of companies' top earners were women. Less than half that rate made it to CEO.

Fortune reported in May the number of female Fortune 500 CEOs dropped to 24 – just under 5 percent of all company heads – from the all-time high of 32 female CEOs the year before.

Keeping with a longer-term view, the number of Fortune 500 companies with greater than 40 percent diversity has more than doubled since 2012 and now stands at 145, the Washington, D.C. advocacy group Alliance for Board Diversity reported in January.

Political movement

Politics are expected to potentially spur change. With a record number of women elected to U.S. Congress in 2018, the movement toward business leadership gender equality could increase, said Greenberg, the Babson professor.

That "suggests potential that at a national level we might see more attention to issues of gender and racial diversity in public-policy initiatives," she said.

State bills could bring more change.

State Sen. Jason Lewis (D-Winchester) has filed a bill to require any Massachusetts public company to have at least one female board member by 2023 or be subject to fines of up to $100,000.

State Rep. Elizabeth Malia (D-Boston) has filed legislation requiring companies with 100-plus employees to report their gender ratio among leadership. The results would be posted publicly each year.

"There's a drumbeat here of constructive things and more pressure on companies to take the initiative to solve the problems instead of having to legislate or shame employers into doing something," said Evelyn Murphy a co-chair of the Boston Women's Workforce Council.

Murphy credited a growing list of organizations publishing data-driven reports on gender equality, including the state's Eos Foundation and the Commonwealth Institute, for increasing transparency on the issue.

"The exposure forces executives to say, 'Wait a minute,'" she said, "'We want to do something. We're the good guys.'"

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