Maggie McCoy, '83
By Klariza Alvaran ’18
Maggie McCoy is a 1983 alumna of Chicago Booth, known then as the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. She recently spoke with the Women’s Network to discuss her mother’s involvement in the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. and her experience as a woman in the workplace during and after her time at Booth.
How did you learn about your mother's involvement in the women's suffrage movement in the U.S., and how did that impact you growing up?
I'll provide a little context because I think it shaped the way my mom taught things.
My mother was born in Chicago to parents who were having real struggles in life. By the time she was six and her little sister was four, they were wards of the state and put in an orphanage even though their parents were still alive. To some extent, that was a good thing for them because they received a much more structured upbringing and I think that’s also where a lot of the opinions and preferences my mom thought were important came from.
She grew up in the Park Ridge School for Girls. It was founded by a very interesting set of women. They were the wives of the movers and shakers of Chicago—Marshall Field, Cyrus McCormick, and Gustavus Swift. They did not want orphan girls to just be tossed out into the streets. What my mom got from the environment there was all the appropriate chapter and verse for growing up to be a proper young lady. The institution advocated raising girls as full-fledged citizens and members of society rather than to simply be a wife and have children.
My mom received a scholarship to go to college and was one of the rare people at the time who was able to go to college. There, she learned more of the mindset of “you can't tell me to be quiet, you can't tell me I don't have a voice.” She met my dad in college who is also very equality-minded. Both my parents raised my sisters and me to believe that it doesn’t matter whether you’re a boy or a girl, you should learn all kinds of things and to be the best you can be.
When we were sitting around the dinner table, my mother would talk about what we could be when we grew up. It had irked my mother to no end that she had “disappeared” after getting married, and while it wasn’t as though my dad declared things to be that way, it’s how society was at the time. Because of that, my mom always encouraged my sisters and me to be our own person. People died to get this privilege so you've got to vote. That was the oxygen of my household, which was not the oxygen of the community I lived in.
I grew up in a farming community where my dad taught young men to be better farmers. My mother was unable to work because women didn't work in that small town. There were so many things my mom couldn’t do because of the social norms in our small farming community—she couldn't have her own name, she couldn’t be her own person, she couldn't work even though she was a professional dietician and nutritionist. I think a lot of her hopes and the things she would have done for herself got transmitted to me. She taught me that if they say “no,” you find a way to get a “yes.” Find your grit and make it work. She never did run for office, but she had opinions and always encouraged us to be the citizens we needed to be and to vote.
When you were a student at Booth, did you notice whether any of your peers needed to unlearn any biases around gender?
In the teams I was on during my classes, everyone was quite egalitarian. I didn't notice anything when I was at the University. Where I did notice more bias was where I worked, which was a motivating factor for me to get my MBA. It was rampant.
I earned my promotions throughout my career. It took a long time for me to get to a point where I was treated like “one of the guys.”
How did mentorship affect your career progression, or did you need to hustle your way up?
I had trained to be a concert pianist in college and became a music teacher afterward, and I realized it wasn't for me. Before I went to the University of Chicago, I had gotten help from the book What Color is Your Parachute?, which taught me to think about my skills through a different vocabulary. So when I interviewed, I talked about my teaching skills and framed them a little differently. By the time I went to graduate school, I already had a job in business.
When I came to CNA, I didn't come in saying “hey, I need a job.” I came in saying “I’m career shifting and trying to understand how I can apply what I know to what you need,” so I asked for informational conversations, not an interview. Because of that, I had a chance to meet a man named Dennis Chookaszian. At the time, he was a very senior financial officer, but he would go on to become the CFO and later the CEO [Dennis is also a Chicago Booth alumnus from the class of 1967]. When I met him, the first thing I asked him was “do you know Lili Chookaszian?” who happened to be an opera star, and he said “oh, Aunt Lili!” We had a great conversation about his Aunt Lili, and he remembered that.
I ended up working in his chain of command for maybe 15 of my 25 years at CNA. He was very egalitarian and had the mindset of “try this and try that,” which was very helpful. So although I had earned every job I had there, it was helpful that we were able to bond over music, of all things. I didn't see him all the time, but whenever we had an all-staff meeting, we had that rapport to come back to. I never asked him for anything, but I knew when discussions for promotion would come up, he knew my name.
Could you talk more about how you positioned yourself to transition from teaching music to working in insurance?
It turns out that the job opportunity that came out of my exploratory interviews with CNA needed someone with teaching skills to lead trainings for staff. The hiring manager was overseeing accident and health claims, and he had been having his senior claims adjusters teach new hires how to adjust claims, and it wasn't working because all his new hires would keep quitting—he couldn't get any of them to stick around. He learned that the new hires would sit next to the senior adjusters, and they were just requested to get coffee and make photocopies. They weren't learning anything. So I convinced the manager that I could develop a curriculum to train them. To me, it was just logical, but the team hadn't done that before.
Twenty-five years later, I ended up as Chief of Staff for the Technology Division to determine what companies we should invest in. For me, I was able to transition through skills that came naturally to me while also taking courses to learn the more technical skills I needed. I doubled down to do the work I needed to do my job.
How have you seen the professional experience for women evolve and change over the years?
In corporations, there has been a combination of the power of the laws (like with Title IX being passed and the EEOC), and the power of lawsuits. More and more are getting with the spirit of equality.
I think with women nowadays training in every discipline there is and being good at what they do, the levels at which professional women view themselves in the fabric of the workplace has really improved. There’s still a ways to go because there is still a problem with Board populations, and there’s not enough diversity in any dimension. If you’re selling to the general public, you need to look like the general public, and Boards don’t. In many cases, things have gotten much better. It’s not a utopia, but it’s better.
How have you continued to stay involved with the Chicago Booth’s women's community?
While I was in school, I became involved in the women’s group and eventually became an officer. We were doing things for each other that were quality of life oriented and we talked about mental health and work-life balance. It was very refreshing. The University did good things for my life, and I feel good about being part of the community and giving back.
Maggie McCoy ’83 is a former finance and strategy leader at CNA, Kemper and more. Klariza Alvaran ’18 works in tech marketing in Chicago and is also a freelance content marketing writer and hobbyist fiction author.