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Executive Offers Straight Talk About Challenges Facing Women in Business


Ellen M. Hancock, GSAS ’67, tells the audience that women who leave the workforce for children should not expect to return at the same level as their peers. Photo by Chris Taggart

Female executives still have plenty of barriers to break down, and they need women in leadership roles to help them do it, according to Ellen M. Hancock, GSAS ’67, a prominent executive in the high-tech industry.

“Women have to work harder to get ahead,” said Hancock. “Is that fair? Absolutely not. But I believe it to be true. We have to prove ourselves more.”

The former chairman and CEO of Exodus Communications shared lessons learned over her four-decade career in the Oct. 4 Gannon Lecture, “Progress in Corporate America: Diversity and Governance, a Personal Perspective.”

Hancock spoke frankly about the glass ceiling, the mommy track, and the need for more women in governance positions.

“Stereotypes exist and women have to overcome them,” said the Bronx native, who earned a master’s degree in mathematics from Fordham. “We are accused of being too aggressive or not aggressive enough.”

Women are often seen as female first and business partners second, she said, noting that articles about her include too many references to her age, her hair color and her religion.

Hancock provided some sobering statistics: Women make up 47 percent of the national labor force, yet they represent 14 percent of Fortune 500 executive officers, 16 percent of the board seats for those companies, and 3 percent of their CEOs.

Indeed, when Hancock served on the 16-person executive group at IBM, where she spent 29 years, it was “me and 15 guys,” she said. “I was often the only woman at business meetings.”

When she left IBM, Hancock continued to make her mark in such high-tech firms as the National Semiconductor Corporation and Apple Computer, Inc., where she served as chief technology officer. While Hancock was at the helm, Exodus Communications, an Internet systems manager for dot-coms, broke NASDAQ records for consecutive quarter-to-quarter revenue growth.

Just as Hancock wants respect for the time she’s put in, she cautions women that taking time off will come at a price. Women who take the “mommy track” she said, should not expect to return to work at the same level as their peers who have not spent time away.

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Hancock credits her Catholic education with teaching her that women are capable of succeeding at the highest levels of business. Photo by Chris Taggart

Hancock encourages women to seek new and different opportunities, even if it means a sacrifice on the home front. She remembered a mentor she had at IBM who offered her a challenging position in the company’s new North Carolina office. She was reluctant, she told him, because she’d just put a down payment on a new kitchen in her Connecticut home.

“‘Ellen,'” she recalled him saying, “‘I really don’t care about your kitchen. I care about your career.'” She accepted the position and has “seized every opportunity since.”

Women serving in governance positions can help create a more diverse corporate America, said Hancock, who serves on the boards of Aetna, Inc., Colgate-Palmolive, Santa Clara University and Marist College.

“There are data indicating that a company is more attentive to their female employees and to diversity issues if they have a female on the board,” she said, adding that some studies suggest a correlation between female trustees and higher profits.

Grooming women for success, said Hancock, should start early.

“Young girls are not encouraged to aspire to careers as managers. We should all be concerned by that fact,” she said.

In contrast, she credits a Catholic education—including several all-girls schools—with helping her rise to the top.

“I had female role models. The secretary was a female. The treasurer was a female. The president was a female. And so, I left college not realizing there was a problem,” she said.

Sponsored by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the Fordham Corporate Law Center, the lecture drew several law students—many female.

“I always think about that, how I’m going to have a kid and do this,” said Italia Almeida, a second-year student at Fordham Law. She was heartened by Hancock’s success. “Forty years of breaking barriers—it’s inspiring.”



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