July 10, 2013

Corporations: Confronting the Glass Ceiling in the Corporate World

Hannah Hayes

Historically, corporate law departments have provided a challenging and satisfying workplace for women who sought a balance between a dynamic law career without the pressure of 80-hour work weeks. Corporate work involves being part of a strategic team and working with clients, and it frequently offers opportunities for advancement.

It may not be surprising, then, that the number of women as lead counsel and in executive positions has grown tremendously. In the past decade, the number of women general counsels (GCs) in Fortune 500 companies has more than doubled, from 44 to 108, according to a survey conducted by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA), Washington, D.C. Twenty-three women have been added to the rolls since 2009, and the number of minority women has doubled.

“I think for women GCs, the story has been a lot more encouraging than for women in leadership in law firms in general,” says Joseph West, MCCA president and CEO.

Since 1999, MCCA has tracked the number of minority general counsels working for Fortune 500 companies. “Many firms are placing a greater premium on growth and talent and recognizing the importance of keeping people,” West says.

A Different Perspective

Maryanne Lavan joined Lockheed Martin, Bethesda, Maryland, in 1990 as a lawyer. During the next 23 years, she served in increasingly responsible positions, and in 2010 was appointed senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary.

As a woman, Lavan says she never necessarily felt a disadvantage. “I think women have a different perspective to offer, and I’ve had tremendous opportunities in my career both internally and externally.” She points out that it’s vital for businesspeople to see women as leaders and CEOs and notes that she frequently works with women in top positions. “It’s really important for outside business leaders to see women in these positions.”

Vicki A. O’Meara is executive vice president and president of Pitney Bowes Services Solutions in Stamford, Connecticut. Prior to joining Pitney Bowes in 2008, she was president of U.S. Supply Chain Solutions, a division of Ryder System, Inc., headquartered in Miami, Florida, which she joined as general counsel in 1997. Before Ryder, she held various federal government positions, including assistant to the general counsel to the secretary of the U.S. Army. One of the first women admitted to the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), she attended Cornell University on an ROTC scholarship and delayed her military service commitment to attend law school at Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois.

O’Meara calls her “jagged and unusual career trajectory” an adventure. “I enjoy and thrive on helping to resolve situations in the best way possible and helping organizations grow to be the very best they can be,” O’Meara says. “I prefer to look at challenges as adventures.”

Despite the inroads women have made in the corporate arena, conscious and unconscious bias still exists. O’Meara points out that while empathy is and should be a good quality for a leader, if it is lacking, a woman would be more harshly judged than a man might be. “We have an expectation of what a good leader looks like—a hard-driving forceful male—but a woman in that role doesn’t always benefit from that leadership style,” O’Meara says.

Making Inroads, Achieving Influence

In recent years, women GCs and corporate leaders have played a vital role in making inroads into other areas of the profession. In-house counsel have begun to understand how influential they can be, and many are asking tough questions of law firms to ensure that women get origination credit and remain a vital part of the team.

“Gone are the days when you can trot out your token minorities on the pitch team,” says West, who points out that technology and software improvements have helped companies track whether the team racking up the billable hours is a diverse one. “As we are becoming a more diverse country, either a company will get serious about growing and developing talent and giving opportunities to diverse lawyers or they will lose their competitive edge.”

Lavan also points to advances in technology that will make it easier for the next generation to balance work and home. “I think we’ve made great strides. It has been a gradual change, not instantaneous, but there has been a lot of change.”

If recent trends hold true, the outlook for women in the C-suite may appear rosier than it has ever been as more and more corporations adapt to the changing expectations of a diverse population. “People have been trained to see diversity as a finite position, but it’s not just about recruiting—it’s about inclusion and talent development,” West says. “Retaining good people is becoming race and gender neutral."

Hannah Hayes

Hannah Hayes is a Chicago-area freelance writer.