Maurine (Mills) Murtagh (B’68) on Moving Past Limitations and Believing in Yourself

Photos of Georgetown alumnae in the 1960s

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Georgetown McDonough joins the nation during the month of March to celebrate Women’s History Month. For the School of Business, this history began in 1960 when the newly formed school awarded its first business degree to a woman. This historic moment set the stage for the extraordinary achievements of six decades of female graduates, who continue to break barriers and pave the way for future generations of women business leaders. 

To celebrate Women’s History Month, we are highlighting several stories of McDonough alumnae who pushed boundaries and found success in their personal and professional lives. 

Maurine (Mills) Murtagh (B’68)

After graduating first in her class from Georgetown’s School of Business Administration, Maurine Murtagh earned an MBA and pursued a career in investment banking. When the reality of workplace sexism reared its head, she forged new paths as an investor in a Florentine decorative glass business, a corporate finance lawyer, and now, a leader in global health and diagnostics.

You attended Georgetown before it was fully coed. What was that experience like? 

I believe there were 100 people in my graduating class, so we were three women out of 100. We were strongly in the minority. You felt it, but because there were enough women in foreign service and languages and obviously nursing, it is not that you particularly felt like a distinct minority or an incredibly small factor on the campus. 

Being a significant minority in business education at that time was not necessarily a function of Georgetown. It was a function of the larger society. Women were not going into business schools. Much later, in 1977, I went to Columbia University to get a Ph.D. in finance. During that process, I taught courses to MBA students at Columbia, and I would say those classes, from 1979 to 1982, were almost half women.

Where did you work after graduating? 

I ended up going to work for Ferris & Co. I didn’t know anything about the brokerage business at the time, but Mr. Ferris made it sound really interesting. As I came to understand what the business was all about, I realized that what would be more interesting to me would be to work in an investment bank. It quickly became clear to me that to get one of those jobs I would need an MBA.

After earning your MBA, you moved to New York and joined Smith Barney. What was the company culture like there?

My impression to this day is that they really did not know what to do with me. They did not know what to do with women. I was the first woman they had ever hired into their investment banking group, so, I was the only one. No one ever articulated this, but it was pretty clear to me that they were like, “So, what do we do with her exactly?” 

“They didn’t want to take me to any client meetings because they weren’t really sure how that would go over.”

Their view at the time was the clients, which were major corporations where the CEOs and senior managers were all men, were not going to accept the fact that there would be a woman on the Smith Barney team as a professional banker. They really couldn’t wrap their heads around that. As a result, most of my work was desk work. They didn’t want to take me to any client meetings because they weren’t really sure how that would go over. It was very frustrating because I just wanted to be treated like everyone else and do what everyone else did — do the client work, and go out and speak with clients, and help them with their financing issues or acquisitions. 

Then I did the ultimate sin. There was a managing director who I ended up meeting and marrying. He left the firm, not because of me, but he left the firm, and we moved to London. They did not hire another woman in investment banking for almost 10 years. I had somehow confirmed their worst nightmares that when you hire a woman they just run off and get married. They are not reliable, and more of the clients and companies do not really want them there anyway.

When did you understand the full extent of the sexism in investment banking?

The woman who worked at the desk behind me who was a computer programmer went to some client meeting and was in the elevator with the partner from Smith Barney and the client’s representatives. The Smith Barney partner turned to the other guy and introduced her to him. The guy’s response was, “Oh, we have one of those too.” Meaning a female. I will never forget it. Even then I thought, “Wow.” The fact that you could say that out loud at the time was just kind of amazing. A handful of women in investment banking at that time were pioneers. It didn’t go so well, not just with me but generally. It was very, very hard for women to make any kind of progress in investment banking at that time.

What was your experience like in law? 

I practiced law for 10 years. I was a partner in a firm in San Francisco. I loved the intellectual challenge of it, and then I loved practicing it because I got to go back and do the deals. I was a mergers and acquisitions lawyer, so I was able to use the business and investment banking experience very nicely in the law. 

Law is a much better choice from the perspective of a female, in my experience, at least where I practiced law. I did not get any sense of, “Oh, she’s a woman, so we can’t have her do that” or “She can’t go to that client.” The boundaries were not there. There’s a certain amount of professional respect that’s accorded amongst lawyers to one another no matter what sex they are. I just did not find the same B.S. that I found in investment banking at all in terms of the limitations of being a woman in the field of law.

What did you pursue after leaving the law firm? 

I left in 2006 and joined what was then known as the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative. I wanted to do something philanthropic, and I have been doing work in diagnostics for global health ever since. I had no background at all when I took that job. It shows you that you can learn what you need to learn when you need to learn it.  

What advice would you give to your younger self? 

When I look back, I realize how naive I was. My father always told me, “You can do whatever you want. You’re smart. The sky is the limit.” Coming out of Georgetown, I still believed that. I had the naivete of the girl at 22 or 23 who wanted to be in the big leagues in investment banking, but in a way, that naivete paid off because I did not know the limitations. 

“Keep on daring to try and trying to make a difference. It is okay to be naive, but keep moving forward and do not let your perceptions of the barriers limit you from trying.”

My advice is don’t restrict yourself and your ambitions by perceptions you have about what you can’t do. Continue to believe that you can. You are going to run into barriers and obstacles, whether you are in investment baking or in your own life generally, but continue to find ways to move forward and get there, to whatever it is that you really want to do. It took me a long time to realize that I could not just waltz into an investment banking firm in New York and be a star. Because actually, they did not think we belonged there. But I am glad I didn’t realize that. Keep on daring to try and trying to make a difference. It is okay to be naive, but keep moving forward and do not let your perceptions of the barriers limit you from trying.

This is an excerpt from the 60 Years of Alumnae: Memories, Milestones, and Momentum book, which shares the experiences and accomplishments of six decades of trailblazing women at Georgetown McDonough. Order your copy of the 60 Years of Alumnae book today to receive $15 off during Women’s History Month.