Saint Joseph’s University Magazine, Summer 2018

A Job Worth Doing

Women’s rights advocate and former Trustee Mary Lou Quinlan ’75 is on a mission to empower women and advance workplace equity.

By Mary Lou Quinlan '75

When I graduated as one of the earliest Saint Joseph’s “coeds,” I was fired up for a great career. I built corporate muscles in the ’80s, cracked the glass ceiling in the ’90s and started my own business in the new century. For over 40 years, I thrived and survived, tiptoeing around gender potholes, relying on hard work and humor rather than a hammer.

But that was “before”: before a Hollywood mogul flopped, Silicon Valley “brotopia” crashed, Wall Street faced the glare of the Fearless Girl and before D.C. politicians, celebrity chefs and late-night comedians were outed for bad behavior. Over the course of the past 18 months, a harsh spotlight has shone on the daily drip of inequity: a persistent pay gap, rampant misogyny and toothless HR policies that fail to create a fair, safe and rewarding workplace.

Millions raised #MeToo to a rallying cry. Women finally said, “Enough.”

I am invigorated to see this powerful new surge of feminism — a cross-generational roar, a new energy that’s even more powerful than anything I experienced 45 years ago. We are not waiting for a leader but taking the lead side by side, generation by generation.

Why did it take us so long? Maybe we were all too busy doing our jobs, paying the bills and keeping the world together as mothers, caretakers and breadwinners. We did what women do: We plugged on. But finally, this concurrent rash of bad behavior has given women the kick in the pants we needed.

Mary Lou Quinlan in blue dress delivering lecture.

Today, I am even more fired up.  At last, we sense that we share a common thread as women, equal and awakened to ourselves, our power, our rights. In the new vernacular in support of social justice, we are “woke.” The charge is to stay woke.

Take note: A March 2018 NBC/Wall Street Journal survey on the workplace compared today’s attitudes to the year 2000. In 2000, 43 percent of men said they don’t accept women as equals at work — the same percentage as in 2018. The share of women who have experienced discrimination has frozen at 43 percent for those same two decades.  If men don’t see this as a problem, how can they help fix it? The solution that’s often suggested is more women in leadership. But when?

Get ready. We’re here.

For years, women were promised that “once women are in the pipeline … ,” there would be more female leaders. But according to That’s What She Said, a new book by former USA Today editor-in-chief Joanne Lipman, if that theory were true, “half of all corporate chief executives would be female by now, considering that the average CEO is a 55-year-old man, meaning he graduated from college in the early 1980s — just when women became half of all college graduates.” As of this writing, just 24 or 3.8 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOS are female, according to global nonprofit Catalyst.

As the movement declares, “Time’s up!” In January 2017, over 5 million women marched in 673 cities and towns around the world, demanding attention. In 2018, women are not only marching, they are running. 

Thousands of women have thrown their hats in the ring to run for office or support the campaigns of female candidates on both sides of the aisle.

Women are speaking our truth. We are not looking for a hero or she-ro anymore. We are not leaning into someone else’s agenda. We are the ones who have come to lead us forward to a world where work is not only what we do but who we are.

Men need to get on this train too. Many already are.

As a university and as alumni, staff, faculty and students, we have to remain awake day to day in order to lay the new standards for the women and men who will walk through our doors to fill the global marketplace of the future.

And to my fellow alumnae from the Class of 1975 and beyond, I say, stay woke … to yourself, to your workplace, to the women in your lives. It’s a job worth doing. I’m all in.


Quinlan was the first female CEO of advertising agency N.W. Ayer & Partners and founded her own women’s marketing company, Just Ask a Woman. An author, actress and frequent speaker, she is currently working on a new solo show about women’s careers called “Work.”