Women in Business Break New Ground: 60 Years of McDonough Alumnae

Georgetown University archive photo of female student in front row of science class surrounded my male classmates

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Sixty years after Georgetown’s first female business school graduate received her diploma, McDonough alumnae are leading the charge to level the playing field in the business world.

By Sona Pai

When Rita Zekas Sielicki (B’60) came to Georgetown University to study accounting in the late 1950s, she could not help but notice her new classmates. 

“They had an orientation program for those who were going into the business school,” Sielicki says. “I was the only female in a room full of males.”

Nonetheless, that did not diminish Sielicki’s ambition to succeed.

During her time at Georgetown, she recalls writing papers out in longhand, carrying around a slide rule for her accounting classes, and following the university’s strict dress code for women: dresses or skirts only, with stockings or knee-high socks to cover the legs at all times.

Sielicki was the first female graduate of what would eventually become the McDonough School of Business. However, she was not the last to look around and realize she was the only woman in the room.  

Georgetown students study in Riggs Library in 1960

“The vast majority of women at Georgetown were nursing students,” says Regina Wentzel Wolfe (B’68), professor of Catholic theological ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. In the class of 1968, there were a total of eight women who graduated from the school of business.

That experience is familiar beyond school for women working across industries, and one that has persisted over the decades, even as more women have entered the workplace. In the 2019 Women in the Workplace report published by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co., one in five women said they are often the only or one of the only women in the room at work.

“Company commitment to gender diversity is at an all-time high, which is encouraging,” says Rachel Schall Thomas (C’93), co-founder and CEO of LeanIn.Org and co-author of the report. “But women, especially women of color, continue to be underrepresented in business at every level.”

McDonough, which has admitted women since it was established in 1957 (and admitted women 12 years before the College), now has over 6,000 undergraduate alumnae and over 3,200 master’s degree alumnae. In an upcoming book celebrating 60 years of Georgetown McDonough alumnae in business, available in 2020, Michael O’Leary, teaching professor and faculty chair of the McDonough Undergraduate Program, and a team of students chronicle the experiences of alumnae through personal stories and historical context.

Together, the women’s stories over the decades paint a picture of ambition in the face of discrimination — both overt and subtle — and perseverance in the effort to dismantle barriers for the next generation of women in business.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the extent to which almost all of the interviewees have said they felt supported while they were at Georgetown,” says O’Leary. “But the corollary theme is that many felt quite shocked at what they found after they graduated and went to work.”

Moving Ahead, Step by Step

Georgetown’s early female business graduates recall being treated as anomalies in the workplace, almost curiosities.

“My impression is they didn’t know what to do with me,” says Maurine Mills Murtagh (B’68) of her first employer. After receiving her undergraduate degree at Georgetown, Murtagh earned her MBA at the University of Texas at Austin and then took a job at Smith Barney in New York. “I was the first woman they had ever hired into their investment banking group. They really couldn’t wrap their heads around that.”

Murtagh says senior management worried clients would frown upon having a woman in the room. As a result, she was not allowed to attend client meetings and was relegated to desk work instead.

“It was very frustrating because I just wanted to be treated like everyone else — do the client work, go out and speak with clients, and help them with their issues or acquisitions,” says Murtagh, who went on to become a corporate finance attorney, worked for the Clinton Foundation, and is now a consultant in global health diagnostics.

“At one level, lots of change has happened. But there’s still an awful lot that’s the same old, same old.”

— Regina Wentzel Wolfe (B’68), Professor of Catholic Theological Ethics at the Catholic Theological Union

During the same time, the civil rights movement and shifting demographic trends in America were laying the foundation for broader opportunities for women in the workplace. As more people began to see a place for women outside the home, universities across the country that once prohibited female students began admitting them. Meanwhile, legal reforms such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963 brought issues of discrimination in the workplace into the national discussion.

As a result, the number of women in the workplace increased. In 1960, women represented just 33.4 percent of the U.S. civilian labor force, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 1970, that number jumped to 38.1 percent of the labor force, and in 2016 it was 46.8 percent. By 2022, the number of working women is estimated to dip slightly to 46.7 percent, but will rebound to 47.1 percent by 2024.

Two female students pose on the statue of John Carroll on Georgetown’s campus, 1975

Although more women were entering the workforce in the 1960s and 1970s, they were often confined to what were considered traditional feminine roles: clerical workers, teachers, office assistants, and sales clerks. Women also were excluded from advancement opportunities and senior management roles because of lingering gender stereotypes.

“At job interviews, I’d have people ask, ‘Are you married? Do you have children? What are your plans?’” says Wolfe. “I knew which companies were a fit because they didn’t ask those questions. Instead, they wanted to know about my skill set, what my interests were, and how I could help them grow.”

One of Wolfe’s first jobs after graduating was at a market research firm in Chicago. “But that didn’t last long,” she says. “I found out three or four months into it that even though I had better credentials, the fellow sitting next to me was making 50 percent more than I was because he was a man. So, I quit.”

Throughout the 1970s, structural barriers such as prohibitive university admissions policies eroded and societal norms about women’s roles changed for the better. More women pursued higher education, embarking on careers in fields such as business, technology, and law. The Equal Rights Amendment — originally drafted in 1923 — passed in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate by 1972. However, the Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified into the Constitution. The same year, Title IX was signed into law, prohibiting discrimination in federally funded education programs or activities on the basis of sex.

In 1973, a group of 40 female undergraduates formed the Women’s Caucus at Georgetown. The organization was designed to support women on campus by organizing seminars on women’s issues and sharing resources to help women learn about the professional world. They also hosted feminist speakers and lobbied for improvements in women’s facilities on campus.

Despite meaningful progress on and off campus, women continued to be underpaid, underemployed, and undervalued compared with their male counterparts. Furthermore, Title IX remains controversial and faces persistent legal challenges across the country.

More recently, in 2018, a Pew Research Center analysis found that women earned 85 percent of what men earned, and 4 in 10 women said they had experienced gender discrimination at work. The pay gap is even wider for women of color. According to an analysis from the National Women’s Law Center, in 2018, women of color earned 61 cents for every dollar earned by their white male counterparts.

“At one level, lots of change has happened,” says Wolfe. “But there’s still an awful lot that’s the same old, same old.”

Beyond the Glass Ceiling

In the 2019 Women in the Workplace report, Thomas and her co-authors debunked a common belief about why women are not represented at the highest levels of the business world.

“Conventional wisdom has been that women are hitting a glass ceiling — this invisible barrier that they just can’t get beyond,” she says. “In reality, we see the real problem is at the first step up to manager.”

According to the report, 72 women are promoted to manager positions for every 100 men. That advancement gap has a long-term effect, creating a situation in which there are fewer and fewer women to promote into higher positions. The result: Men hold 62 percent of manager positions, while women hold 38 percent. At the top, only one in five C-suite leaders are women. The numbers are lower for women of color, who hold only one in 25 C-suite positions.

“Company commitment to gender diversity is at an all-time high, which is encouraging. But women, especially women of color, continue to be underrepresented in business at every level.”

— Rachel Schall Thomas (C’93), Co-founder and CEO of LeanIn.Org 

Melissa Bradley (B’89), managing partner and founder of the business development firm 1863 Ventures and adjunct professor at the McDonough School of Business, was not willing to wait and see if a glass ceiling existed or spend her time and energy trying to break through it.

“If you’re a person of color, particularly a woman, the presence of multiple identities means that either you decide which one comes first, or the world decides,” she says. “Being black was my first identifier, but I started to understand the uniqueness of being a woman in business in my first job where it was very clear that the majority of the leaders were men.”

Working in her first corporate job, Bradley saw no path for advancement as rumors swirled of a company reorganization. “I realized then that the best way for a woman to lead in business, particularly a black woman, was entrepreneurship,” she says.

While still employed, Bradley started a financial consulting business on the side, with a specific focus on financial management for women. Since then, she has gone on to found and invest in numerous enterprises, all aimed at helping women and entrepreneurs of color build successful businesses.

A 2018 report on women-owned businesses commissioned by American Express found that the number of women-owned businesses has increased by nearly 3,000 percent since 1972. Women are starting an average of 1,821 new businesses per day in America, earning revenues of $1.8 trillion. Women of color own 47 percent of women-owned businesses, generating more than $386.6 billion.

“I realized then that the best way for a woman to lead in business, particularly a black woman, was entrepreneurship.”

— Melissa Bradley (B’89), Managing Partner and Founder of 1863 Ventures and Adjunct Professor at the McDonough School of Business

“There was such a level of satisfaction in being able to do something on my own,” Bradley says. “I don’t know that I’m ever going to look back to get a job again.”

Paving a Path Forward

LeanIn’s Thomas believes that while women still face systemic issues within the workplace, true progress also requires addressing the more subtle, everyday discrimination women face.

 “When women feel they can thrive, it leads to better innovation, more efficiency, better management, and real financial results.”

— Jessica N. Grounds (EML’12), Co-founder of Mine The Gap

“We need to change the culture of work,” she says. “Women are experiencing a lot of everyday sexism, and it’s like death by a thousand cuts.”

Instances of everyday sexism include being interrupted or spoken over in a meeting, being mistaken for someone more junior, having your expertise questioned, or being expected to take notes during a meeting or clean up after one.

“I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard where a woman walks into a room of men — all men — and a man asks her to get coffee,” says Kristin Haffert (EML’11), co-founder of the consulting firm Mine The Gap. “Then she starts the meeting and the men are floored to find out she’s the CEO. It’s a blind spot we see over and over again.”

Haffert and fellow Mine The Gap co-founder Jessica N. Grounds (EML’12) each spent years helping women leaders advance in politics and business within the United States and internationally. They created Mine The Gap to help companies recognize gender-related blind spots and develop programs to create a more gender-inclusive culture at work.

“We want to help companies understand that there is untapped leadership right under their noses,” says Grounds. “We help them see that when women feel they can thrive, it leads to better innovation, more efficiency, better management, and real financial results.”

Grounds and Haffert use research and data to help company leaders see how gender discrimination may be happening within their companies as well as its implications. Some of their recent research includes how the #MeToo movement is having a financial impact. For example, approximately 55 percent of women surveyed say they are less likely to apply for a job at a company with a public #MeToo allegation, and 49 percent of women say they are less likely to buy its products or stock.

Still, both Grounds and Haffert say the progress they are seeing is encouraging. “In some ways, I think we’ve ripped the bandage off and have a much more open conversation about women in leadership,” Haffert says. “Having more women in the labor force has forced companies to realize you have to look at human beings as human beings, and being inclusive in ways that lift everyone up.”

Published in Georgetown Business magazine, Fall 2019