Although more women are populating high-profile general counsel spots than ever before, women still remain a rare species in corporate America's C-Suites. To level the playing field, women need to take charge, take stock and be willing to leave their comfort zones.
When David Fisher, Rachel Robbins' boss at JP Morgan & Co., offered her the chance to become general counsel of a new broker dealer in 1986, she hesitated before answering. "I'm flattered, but I don't know much about securities law," Robbins said.
"So you'll learn it," Fisher responded.
Robbins says she often tells this story to female attorneys because no man would have ever responded the way she did to the job offer.
"Women often don't take enough career risks and don't speak up and reach for opportunities outside their comfort zones," she says. "Part of what I would say to younger women is don't be shy, be more assertive, state your views and take career risks."
Robbins, who worked her way up JP Morgan's corporate ladder to the general counsel position and currently serves as the NYSE's general counsel and executive vice president, is part of a growing trend of women going in house and nabbing the top spots. According to the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA), 83 women currently hold GC posts at Fortune 500 companies, representing 16.6 percent of all Fortune 500 GCs.
That figure has increased four-fold over the past decade. While these numbers are encouraging, they also make it clear that legal departments are still far from achieving gender parity. "More women than men seem to feel that if they just do a good job and keep their heads down, they are going to get noticed," Robbins says. "Unfortunately, that rarely happens."
The reality is that unless female in-house counsel take certain proactive steps to advance their careers, they might as well get comfortable languishing on the lower rungs of their company's corporate hierarchy. According to Robbins and other leading female GCs interviewed for this story, women lawyers need to take ownership of their careers, network and be willing to step outside their comfort zones if they want to level the playing field with their male counterparts and become a real presence in corporate America's C-suites.
Face the Music
In the past experts attributed the low number of women GCs to the fact that law was traditionally male dominated and assumed the numbers would increase as more women entered the talent pool. But the fact that women occupy less than 20 percent of Fortune 500 GC posts (and only 25 percent of GC positions overall) can no longer be blamed on a lack of seasoned female lawyers in the talent pipeline.
"This isn't a pipeline issue and I don't think it has been for a long time," says Brande Stellings, senior director of Catalyst, an organization dedicated to advancing women in the workplace. In 1985 40 percent of law school graduates were female, and today half of all law school graduates are women. Yet despite two decades of growth, few women have become GCs (see "Bottom Heavy"). While the theories to explain this are open to debate, what is no longer disputable is that the legal profession is flush with female talent.
According to the ACC, women now hold 39 percent of in-house positions. "There are no stumbling blocks to women getting in-house positions," says Lorraine Koc, general counsel for retail chain Deb Shops Inc. "But in terms of advancement, there is an issue."
One of the most prevalent answers to why women still lag behind men is that gender stereotyping is still commonplace.
What makes this problem so difficult to overcome is that stereotyping tends to be extremely subtle and often is unintentional. Catalyst conducted a study in 2001 that highlights this problem. According to its report "Women in Law: Making the Case," male in-house lawyers believe the biggest barrier to women's advancement is that women have not been in the pipeline long enough. Women, on the other hand, rank this issue 12th out of 14 possible answers and instead identify exclusion from informal networks as their largest barrier. That goes a long way toward explaining why more hasn't been done to remedy the gender gap. "If you can't see the obstacles and if you think it's just a matter of time, it makes it easier to not implement active strategies to help remedy the issues," Stellings says.
The fact that women identified lack of access to informal networks as their top barrier isn't surprising. For a variety of reasons, women are excluded from many informal networking activities such as golf outings or happy hours. Men don't intentionally exclude women from these events, but may simply feel uncomfortable inviting a female colleague to happy hour because of the chance that such an invitation could be misinterpreted.
If male bosses are unaware that women are being excluded or are unwilling to pull female colleagues into their inner circles, women need to break in and get to know the people who hold the keys to interesting assignments and promotion opportunities.
"There is still unconscious discrimination in that managers generally will feel more comfortable with people like them, especially when it comes to stretch assignments," Robbins says. "If I'm the manager and I don't know Susie, but I have been golfing with Johnny and drinking with Johnny, then I am much more comfortable with his skill set."
As a result, women need to find ways to become part of informal social networks, such as planning lunch dates with male and female colleagues. "In the business world, networking is absolutely critical," says Siri Marshall, general counsel of General Mills. "If you want to know how to get things done quickly and effectively, having a network of people can be one of the most helpful things in a company."
McDonald's General Counsel Gloria Santona also stresses the significance of networking and encourages female employees to join McDonald's Women's Leadership Network (WLN), a companywide support group focused on preparing women leaders for future career opportunities. The WLN provides McDonalds' employees with seminars, mentoring opportunities and leadership workshops. It has had a tangible impact on Santona's own department--63 percent of the 69 attorneys at the company's headquarters are women.
"I encourage participation in the employee networks and I am also a big proponent of networking outside of the organization," Santona says, adding that professional organizations and pro bono work offer staff members a variety of opportunities to network in the company and community.
But not everyone works for a boss who's so attuned to women's need to network. In many companies, women need to be more assertive and not wait for help to fall in their laps.
Women lawyers often miss out on one of the easiest ways to do that--engaging in smart self-promotion.
Many women hesitate to highlight their personal accomplishments and are more comfortable with "we" statements than with taking credit individually. But while some people shudder at the expression "self promote," almost all the GCs interviewed for this story said that women need to do a better job of drawing attention to their accomplishments.
"Women tend to follow the academic model more than men, meaning that they think that everything is a meritocracy and that excellence in technical work product will equal promotion and advancement," Koc says. "And that is not quite true."
In most legal departments, the general counsel usually has too much on his or her plate to be able to take stock of each staff member's contributions. Therefore, the general counsel may never notice staff members' accomplishments if they don't speak up and take credit for them.
"It's helpful when people come to me and tell me what good things they have done because I don't always see it, and I want to be able to recognize people," says Joyce Haag, general counsel of Eastman Kodak Co.
But women need to be careful about how they inform their superiors of their achievements. According to Martha Africa, managing director of legal placement firm Major, Lindsey & Africa, a double standard still exists, so women must be more subtle in promoting themselves than men.
"A guy may strut through the hallway with his thumbs through his suspenders," Africa says, " but women don't have the same kinds of behaviors that say, 'Hey, look at me. I'm great.'"
And that isn't a bad thing. While women do need to point out that they are in fact "great," they need to take into account that their actions may be perceived differently than their male coworkers. Therefore, promoting tactfully is key to success. "It's very important that you don't self promote yourself off the team," warns Gail Lione, general counsel of Harley-Davidson.
Another step women can take to raise their profiles and overcome gender stereotypes is taking on challenges and opportunities outside their comfort zones.
For example, when Kodak's former general counsel Gary Van Graafeiland offered Haag the opportunity to go overseas to become general counsel of the Europe, Africa and Middle East region, she jumped at the chance even though it meant she and her husband would have to leave their hometown of Rochester, N.Y., and move to Geneva, Switzerland.
"Interestingly enough, my boss thought I was jumping off a cliff with no parachute," Haag says. "He said it was the most risk taking he had seen in a long time." Uprooting her family to a new continent and learning a new language demonstrated Haag's commitment to the company and showed her boss that she was serious about expanding her work experience. She attributes her success in succeeding Van Graafeiland as general counsel to that move.
Another leading female GC who found success by taking an opportunity outside her comfort zone is Siri Marshall. When presented with the opportunity to join General Mills, Marshall left her home in New York City and moved to the town where the food company is headquartered--Minneapolis suburb Wayzata, Minn.
"It was a family decision, and in my case it was something I was very excited about," Marshall recollects, adding that the move was a bigger challenge for her husband, who had spent 18 years in Time Magazine's legal department and knew there was nothing comparable in Minnesota.
By taking these steps, Haag and Marshall overcame another stereotype that still plagues many women in the workforce--the perception that women are too concerned about family life to make bold career moves.
Carol Frohlinger, an attorney and managing director of Negotiating Women Inc., a career-training firm for women executives, points out that one type of subtle discrimination that frequently hampers women's advancement is well intentioned statements such as, "She has children that are teenagers and she may not want to do the travel that is required of someone in that role." Although the employer might think it's protecting the employee's interests, such beliefs can prevent a women from receiving promotions.
To combat this misconception, women need to ask for more challenges and proactively seek leadership opportunities. "You should take advantage of leadership development training programs in the company, whether or not they are for lawyers, and think about leadership models outside the law area," Marshall says.
But if a company does not offer these types of opportunities, women need to look outside the company's four walls. "If you don't feel that you have the opportunity to grow internally, you may want to look to civic, philanthropic or charitable organizations in which to develop leadership skills," says Dorian Denburg, who serves as chief rights-of-way counsel in BellSouth's legal department and also will lead this year's National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) general counsel institute.
While none of these steps is guaranteed to catapult a female lawyer to the top of the department, each of them can certainly help women lawyers overcome some of the stumbling blocks they still face. But the ultimate solution to the lack of women in the top ranks of legal departments is for the women who have made it there to foster the career development of future women leaders.
An attitude of "I did it, so why can't they" isn't going to help. "Some people don't see the problem because they are so high up in rarefied air that they don't realize that there is something below that may be problematic," Frohlinger says.
That isn't to say that plenty of women aren't doing their part, she adds. More women leaders should take a page from general counsel such as Santona, who has actively found ways to foster the success of women attorneys.
Another way senior managers can ensure they are doing their part to help women advance is to rethink how they hire legal talent. The traditional candidate pools to which Fortune 500 companies turn--the GCs of Fortune 1000 companies and law firm partners--are just as male dominated as the top ranks of the Fortune 500. But legal departments may be missing out on important sources of female talent by failing to consider lawyers already within their ranks or lawyers at other companies who have yet to attain the GC title.
The bottom line is that changing the gender makeup of legal departments is going to take a unified effort on the part of both upper managers and women on the lower rungs. The worst thing anyone can do is imagine that the problem doesn't exist. "Don't think that keeping your head down and doing your legal work is the path to advancement," Robbins says, "because there are a lot of other things you need to do."