The “B” Word

What actually goes on in the Board room?  Does it matter who’s in there when decisions are made?

“B” is for Boards, as in, that male-dominated gaggle of experts whose profound knowledge and expertise accelerate a company’s success. That merry band of who’s who, whose resources and name recognition buy your company credibility. Or opportunity. Or time.

“B” is for Board Room, that man-cave like sanctuary where big decisions get made.

In the Board Room, beyond fiduciary duties, the roles and responsibilities of a board of directors can vary depending on things like the company’s business or industry, or the stage in its lifecycle. But invariably, boards hire, fire, and compensate chief executives. They inform and approve corporate strategy and key business decisions. They consider and adopt policies that impact employees, customers, and communities. So yes, it matters who is there to make those decisions.

Gender diversity matters in the Board room. Companies led by boards that include women perform better on everything from return on equity, sales, and invested capital, to corporate social responsibility. Women bring talent and insights desperately needed. In the technology sector for example, women directors are nearly twice as likely as men to possess professional technology experience, which seems like it might be a good thing for a technology company.

And yet women are woefully underrepresented on corporate boards. Just last year, the 2020 Women on Boards Gender Diversity Index of Fortune 1000 companies showed that only 17.9% of corporate directors were women. According to Catalyst, women of color account for a mere 2.8% of directors on Fortune 500 boards, and are twice as likely as white women to serve on multiple boards – meaning, companies are overly relying on the same few women of color rather than making space for more.

Of the 22 Washington companies on the Fortune 1000 list, ZERO have majority female boards. ZERO have a 50/50 gender balanced board. In fact, you might be surprised at how some of our state’s giants have shut women out of the Board Room:

ZERO women on the board of Zillow.

2 women on the boards of Costco (15%), Expedia (15%), and Nordstrom (17%)

3 women on the boards of Microsoft (27%) and Starbucks (23%)

A notable exception to this embarrassing list is Alaska Air, with 5 women on the board (45%).

Gender is far from the only type of diversity we should demand in the Board Rooms of the companies that so profoundly impact our region. But it’s an important one. 51% of the country is now female. Is it preposterous to think that a female majority board might have a competitive advantage in this changing demographic landscape?

Which gets to me to the final “B”. The big “B”. B is for Bring It. As in, bring on your best, lamest, most thinly transparent excuses for why this status quo is acceptable. Because we’re ready, and we’re coming for the Board Room.


SEC Rules and Gender Bias

Do investor rules keep women out of the game?

Since women earn 79 cents to the dollar on men, perhaps new SEC accreditation standards for women could help level the start-up playing field.

Women-led start-ups receive about 7% of all venture funding in the U.S. There is a wealth of female-inspired innovation not getting funded because men hold the wealth to fund it. In early stages, I think men often simply don’t understand or don’t value women’s ideas. One example? Sara Blakely couldn’t find a female patent attorney and the male patent attorneys she did find just couldn’t get their brains around the concept for Spanx – an idea which entirely disrupted a $110 billion global industry and made her the youngest self-made female billionaire.

Men are 60% more likely to get funded for the same pitch compared to their female counterparts seeking early stage funding. Gender bias plays out daily in conference rooms and board rooms where men are often credited for women’s ideas. Hat tip to the women of the Obama Administration for calling out and developing a specific strategy for combating this phenomena.

Here’s how the federal Securities and Exchange Commission compounds this gender bias: Its rules, designed to protect the public, make it really hard for women to join men in the angel investor market, where many ideas are either saved or sunk. To invest in a private venture, to be an angel, one must be accredited. Because the risk is so high, the standards for accreditation are meant to ensure that only those with money to lose are allowed at the table.

The standards are this: you must have earned $200k a year (or $300k jointly with your spouse) for the last two years, or you must have a million dollars in net assets, excluding your personal residence. As a matter of public interest this all seems perfectly reasonable, until you take into account persistent gender pay and wealth gaps. Women are simply less likely than men to achieve these accreditation standards. Which means that if you’re a woman with a great idea, and you need funding to get it out of the lab or into the market, it’s going to be harder to find a woman you can pitch the idea to than it is to find a man who is less likely to fund you.

How different would the start-up landscape look if we pared investor accreditation standards for women with pay equity? As long as women earn 79% of what men earn, shouldn’t we be allowed in on angel investing if we earn $158k a year or have $790,000 in net assets? What kind of capital might this open up for women entrepreneurs?

Of course, women are needed at every stage of investing, not just seed and start up. Last year, women-owned ventures accounted for 29.2% of entrepreneurs seeking angel investment, and only 14.4% of them got it. That’s a low yield rate; one that declined steadily over the previous four years. One possible reason? Women investors accounted for only 25.3% of a $25 billion angel market. If women entrepreneurs and women-owned companies are going to get a fair(er) shot at a slice of that pie, they’re going to need access to more women investors.

Sure, this business of removing barriers is a slippery slope. I mean, making it easier than it is now for women to invest could lead to more gender equity on corporate boards, since investing is one way directors “earn” their seats. And that means women could be more involved in big decisions that impact billions of customers and employees. Imagine what crazy ideas we might have. And since high risk can lead to big rewards, allowing women in on the game might just build more wealth for women. I wonder what we’d do with that.

I think it’s time women came knocking on the SEC’s door. Don’t you?

(PS – Clearly I’m new to this whole blogging business. Not clear to me are the rules for where to bold or what to cite, so I’m just doing that shit randomly. Shoot me an email if you have burning thoughts on such matters.)

Sh*t Women Lawyers Put Up With

Yesterday I attended a thought-provoking discussion about how to move beyond dialogue to address gender, age, and racial bias in the legal profession. It should be surprising to absolutely no one that in 2016, women attorneys still encounter misogyny on a daily basis. Nor should it give you pause to understand how this is compounded for women of color, older women, queer women, and women with disabilities.

Here in Washington, about 45% of all lawyers are women compared to 36% nationally. Yet women – especially women of color – flee the profession in droves after a few years. Who wouldn’t leave a profession in which 44.7% of all associates nationally are women, and yet only 21.5% are partners, and only 18% are equity partners? Why stay in a profession in which all women earn 77 cents to the dollar of their male counterparts, and in which women equity partners still earn a mere 80 cents to the dollar of their male counterparts with similar books of business?

Let’s get candid, shall we, about women’s experiences in the law. Here’s a mere sampling of experiences I have heard female attorneys describe:

Being mistaken for the court reporter or administrative staff

Being called “honey” by one’s client, opposing counsel, and judge

Being scolded from the bench, and having one’s commitment to their client questioned, for having a pressing childcare issue

Being called “sassy” or “saucy” (each of which carries sexual connotations) for speaking up

Being passed over when introducing new clients to the firm

Being excluded from invitations to social opportunities where business is discussed

Being called “cute” in a professional setting

Being questioned about parenthood choices and priorities in situations in which a man would never be questioned (I have yet to meet a man who lost a contract or job opportunity because the employer or client worried he might want to have children in the next few years)

Being told how to dress or how not to dress, like ….

Being told to wear pink because it softens your appearance, and then connecting better with the jury because the pink touches in that suit, in fact, softened your appearance (apparently jurors need lawyers not only to be competent, but to fit comfortably within gender stereotypes)

Being critiqued for speaking up too much, too loudly, not enough, or not loudly enough (when and how to speak up seems to be a popular topic of feedback for women that my male colleagues say they don’t hear much about)

Facing a presumption of incompetence and being treated with surprise for being competent

In my career, I’ve also been told that women founders don’t face any unique barriers in launching ventures, that there is no difference in how women and men CEOs are treated by their boards, that it’s best for society when women choose family over career, and that women would occupy more positions of leadership if they didn’t choose family over career. That’s right sisters, we are damned when we do, and damned when we don’t.

So, why stay? Here are my three reasons:

First, lawyers hold a tremendous amount of privilege and power which can be used for tremendous good. Leaving the profession concedes this privilege and power to others.

Second, women bring unique insight, experience, and talents to solving problems. Those gifts are needed in every area of law.

Third, sticking it out paves the way for others traditionally marginalized from and within the practice of law. We need more trailblazers.

And here are a few ideas for how we can stick it out, together:

Build a network with other women lawyers with whom you can vent, strategize, give, and receive support. Be there for each other.

Get involved with organizations – like Washington Women Lawyers – that actively work to dismantle barriers for women in the legal profession.

Learn about intersectionality and own the privilege you bring to a given situation. Make space for other women – especially women of color – to be seen, heard, and valued.

Finally, when you need a little levity and inspiration (don’t we all?), enjoy a little Notorious RBG, which pays homage to perhaps the most badass doyenne of them all.

Those are my thoughts. What are yours?


Do women’s voices matter?

When we’re holding up examples of brilliance, does it matter which examples we choose? I think so. Apparently, the TED Radio Hour does not.

Like a Netflix junkie caught up on House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, I’ve been craving my next high. A friend turned me on to podcasts. Serial, to be precise. I devoured it. When the second season was released – I waited until all the episodes were available so I could sink into binge-y delight with it, too. But I needed more. On my daily walks recently, I began scanning my podcast library furiously for a fix. I found a few duds, a few surprises, and a lot of A-for-effort small batch productions out on the frontier of this fascinating medium.

And then I tuned in to the NPR TED Radio Hour. I recognized host Guy Raz’s voice immediately. I’ve heard a few great TED talks over the years. So I downloaded a bunch of episodes and rejoiced that my walks would again have some purpose.

The rejoicing was short lived. As I listened, I started feeling something … familiar. An annoyance. An itch. Something just beneath the surface you just can’t quite scratch.

This is a show self-described as “based on riveting TED-talks from the world’s most remarkable minds.” The emphasis there is all mine. The concept is that Guy and his team cull the TED world for the very best and most brilliant idea makers out there, and bring them to you in a tight, one hour symphony of interview and epic snippets.

The trouble was, I rarely heard women’s voices. Maybe it’s just this episode, this topic, I thought. Each time. And so I started listening to them all.

Obsessed, I sat down a few days ago to analyze the show. Of the 10 most recent TED Radio Hour episodes, women represented only 21% of speakers highlighted. One in five. In two episodes, there were no women speakers at all, and there were no instances of women-only episodes. In not one single episode was a woman the first speaker highlighted. Not one. She always appears later – like an afterthought, an antidote, an alternative.

This is funny, in that “this is not funny at all” kind of a way, because half the planet is female. Sure, we’re woefully underrepresented in the board room, the court room, elected office, and just about everywhere else that power resides. Apparently, we’re also invisible when guys like Guy go looking for the world’s most remarkable minds.

I’ve set up a fun little dashboard to track these stats. I now anxiously await each week’s episode in hopes Guy will pull the rug out from under me. He hasn’t yet. And maybe it’s not his fault. Maybe it’s just slim pickings from the TED archives. After all, he didn’t set the stage, he merely decided where to point the spotlight.

But what are we saying when we declare only 1 of 5 of the world’s most remarkable minds belong to women? What are we telling girls when we’re driving in our cars, and we choose to listen to the TED Radio Hour on NPR? “Hey girls, listen to these remarkable men on the radio! Shhhhhh. Aren’t they brilliant? When you grow up, you’re going to have so many amazing opportunities to listen to men’s remarkable and brilliant ideas! Oh yeah, I think there’s a lady whose going to talk, too, but we’re home now, so I guess we’ll just have to miss her. I’m sure whatever she had to say couldn’t have been that important.

I think it matters. To whom we hand the microphone. Where we shine the spotlight. What we edit, and how we produce. It matters, because in curating remarkableness, we’re shaping people’s ideas of what kind of person is remarkable – and what kind of person is not.

By the way, Guy’s next project is another NPR podcast called How I Built This, in which he promises to feature “innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists, and the stories behind the movements they built.” I have high hopes for gender equity in this next venture, because I’m an idealist. Or a damn fool.  Either way, I’ll be listening. At least in the beginning.