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Exploring the Past to Shape the Future: Lessons Learned from 60 Years of MBA Alumni

This article is sponsored by Georgetown McDonough School of Business.

Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business recently marked the 60th anniversary of the first woman to graduate from the school by publishing 60 Years of Alumnae: Memories, Milestones, and Momentum

In interviews, more than 70 graduates across seven degree programs painted a picture of the tremendous progress women have made in business and shared advice for future generations. When we set out to capture their stories, we didn’t know what we would learn. But, as the conversations took place, a distinct narrative emerged about the common challenges and successes women have experienced in the workplace over time.

1960s and 1970s

These early graduates were among the first women seeking professional roles in business. They faced numerous challenges even in the hiring process, with probing interview questions about the likelihood they would have children and leave the workforce. Those who did make it through found systems and policies that didn’t take them into account. 

When Maurine Murtagh (B’68) entered the world of investment banking after graduation, she discovered that “they really did not know what to do with me.” As the first woman to ever be hired at her firm as a professional banker, she said they were hesitant to take her to client meetings because “they weren’t really sure how that would go over.”

1980s and 1990s

Over the next 20 years, women made a push for workplace equality, exposing inequities and tensions between genders. Several alumnae reported being the only woman on a team or in meetings, which could be isolating. For BIPOC women, the challenge was twofold. Diana Williams (B’89) shared, “the number of times I would walk into meetings and be dismissed because I was a woman of color was ridiculous.”

Others, like Betsy Comerford (B’81, MBA’83), were motivated to push forward despite the inequity. She shared, “There were opportunities I was not offered because of my gender, but this only made me more determined.” Similarly, alumnae felt they needed to prove themselves. “It was a male-dominated world,” said Jenny Sanford McKay (B’84), “but once they got to know me, they knew they could trust me and value both my work and my abilities.”

2000s and 2010s

Graduates from these most recent decades benefitted from the support of women graduates from the 1970s-1990s who were in leadership positions by the 2000s, and who served as mentors and role models. As Sandra Hanna (MBA’00, J.D.’01) shared, “Today, one of my biggest challenges is enabling the women who work for me to understand that they, too, belong in the room.”

Their stories also made clear that the business world still has far to go. “People instinctively assume that if there’s progress made on these problems, then they will inevitably resolve, but it takes real work,” said Dancey Glover (MA-IBP’18). Yet, they also look to the future with promise. “I really hope that things will change and that young girls can grow up believing that they can do anything,” said Fatema Dewji (B’10). 

Michael O’Leary, Ph.D., is senior associate dean for Custom Executive Education at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. He also is co-chair of the school’s Standing Committee on DEI and is a teacher/scholar on teams (especially virtual ones), leadership, multi-tasking, and multi-teaming.

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