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.
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.
"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.
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.
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."