By Alexandra Werner Winslow
BU News Service
“I love the day when Hillary Clinton gets up and nobody comments on her hairstyle,” said Margaret McKenna, the president of Suffolk University, in her impassioned remarks to the Women’s Network of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce Thursday morning.
Nearly 100 women chuckled and groaned as they listened to McKenna describe a career spent navigating her gender in a variety of leadership roles.
McKenna began her career as a civil rights attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice before moving into higher education, alternately serving as the undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education, vice president of Radcliffe College and president of Lesley University.
Yet it was her time as the head of the Walmart Foundation that garnered the most reaction from the women gathered in the Seaport Hotel’s Plaza Ballroom. Describing her first evaluation, McKenna recounted her supervisor’s gendered critique of her working style.
“He said, ‘People here think you’re aggressive. If you would be more ladylike, you would probably be more successful,’” said McKenna to audible gasps. “When he said ‘ladylike,’ at first I started to laugh because I thought it was a joke. Because it was 2008!”
Throughout her remarks, McKenna’s emphasized a pragmatic approach. She urged women to rely on candor and a thick skin to affect change.
The Women’s Network of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce includes women from all industries, and they appeared to be impressed by McKenna’s remarks at Thursday’s breakfast.
Tammy McLean, director of the Center for Executive Education at Suffolk University, said she could relate with McKenna’s experiences.
“[McKenna] describes really what’s the classic double-bind: when women exhibit leadership behaviors that get men promoted, it’s seen as inappropriate,” said McLean.
McKenna ended her remarks on a positive note, urging women to embrace their capacity for leadership.
“While we have achieved a lot, I think there is much for us to do,” said McKenna. Referencing Nelson Mandela, she added, “Go out there and shake some trees.”