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Don’t ask Maura Abeln Smith, of Owens Corning, about the invisible barriers facing women lawyers in corporate America. “I don’t believe we should talk about glass ceilings anymore,” snaps the GC. “Talk instead about the traits of a leader. The glass ceiling [concept] undermines people’s accomplishments.” And don’t ask Ellen Kaden, of Campbell Soup Co., about the male chauvinists who have crossed her path. “Have I encountered obstacles?” she asks. “Yes. But I don’t dwell on them. … It’s really ineffective to focus on the Neanderthals out there.” As general counsel of Fortune 500 companies, Smith, 46, and Kaden, 50, symbolize what women can achieve through talent and hard work. But the fact that they sit so conspicuously on a lofty perch underscores a sobering fact: Men still hold most of the top legal spots in major American companies. Indeed, the numbers tell the story: This year women attorneys accounted for only 12.2 percent of the GCs in the Fortune 500, according to Corporate Counsel research. And that figure is an improvement from 1999 — when only 9.6 percent of female lawyers made the mark. While the increase is promising, these numbers look bleak next to another data point: Women have made up at least 40 percent of the nation’s law school classes since the mid-1980s. MEN STILL RULE So why aren’t there more female GCs? Are women opting to stay in law firm partnerships instead? Hardly, says Anne Weisberg of Catalyst, a New York-based research organization that conducted a 2001 study on women in the law; she adds women aren’t ascending in firms either. According to The National Law Journal, women made up just 14.1 percent of the partners at the nation’s 250 largest firms in 2001. As for the argument that there aren’t enough qualified women for the top jobs (either at firms or as deputies in-house), Weisberg calls that pure baloney. “We’ve had critical mass at least for 15 years,” she says about the number of female graduates from top law schools. Look instead to an inhospitable corporate culture and lack of access to internal networks to explain the dearth of female GCs, says Weisberg. “Seventy-one percent of the in-house women [in Catalyst's study] felt they had a hard time developing critical relationships — like getting invited to play golf, dinner at the CEO’s house, or to the company box at the U.S. Open — the way informal relationships are formed among men,” she says. That the corporate world is a men’s club is hardly news — considering that a scant 1.2 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives are female. But what counts, says Campbell’s Kaden, is how women deal with that reality: “The golf outings, the boys’ club … that’s everywhere. But if you focus on it, it’ll kill you.” She credits her own career to having a strong, supportive boss. “I had a CEO who wanted me to succeed,” says Kaden about Laurence Tisch, the former CEO of CBS, who picked her to be GC of the broadcasting company in 1991 (she joined Camden, N.J.- based Campbell’s in 1998). WHAT PRICE SUCCESS? But even in the best corporate cultures, women — typically more so than men — wrestle with managing work and family life. Trying to maintain that balancing act affects many women’s willingness to take professional risks and to seek out demanding jobs. “Women sometimes are reluctant to go the distance,” says Lauri Shanahan, GC of San Francisco’s The Gap Inc. “Culturally, it’s okay for women to quit [pressured jobs].” And though her husband stays home with their two kids, Shanahan confesses, “I struggle with the feeling I’m not there [home] as much as I should be.” And Smith from Toledo’s Owens Corning, who claims to be devoid of any Suzy Homemaker genes, admits that getting to the top came at a price: “The loser in the equation has been my family … I have two kids, and they’ll say, ‘Mom wasn’t there for the games, recitals.’” Will the women behind her be as ambitious? “A lot of Generation Xers — men and women — don’t want to commit body and soul to the job,” says Cynthia Calvert, who co-directed a study on attorney retention for the Washington College of Law at American University in Washington, D.C. The younger women, says Calvert, “don’t want to be like the women who decided not to have kids, or those with kids and compartmentalized lives — the nannies, boarding schools and such.” For female in-house lawyers, that may mean giving up a shot at the GC spot, which often entails long hours, myriad responsibilities and extensive travel. Though not a member of Generation X, Rebecca Kendall, 54, the GC of Eli Lilly and Co. in Indianapolis, is all for shaking up the status quo to get more women to the top. She faults women for not being more assertive about defining the terms of their jobs: “We fall into a trap by not thinking about different ways of doing a job. We hurt ourselves by not being more committed to alternatives.” FINDING ALTERNATIVES But some younger women already take the alternative as a given. After all, they entered the job market when maternity leave was no longer an exotic concept. That certainly applies to Shanahan, 39, one of the youngest Fortune 500 female GCs; she says that when she was an associate at San Francisco’s Thelen Reid & Priest in the late ’80s, partners “bent over backwards for women with kids.” And at The Gap, Shanahan has found an even more progressive environment: The company is relatively nonhierarchical, appoints women to key management positions, offers flextime and part-time work and so on. In fact, Shanahan reports that 10 years ago there were no men in The Gap’s legal department (now 70 percent of its 30-lawyer team is female). With all those extra X chromosomes floating around the office, Shanahan says it’s easy to preach to employees that “family should be a top priority” — a credo she practices by being “pretty religious about my own hours.” Though many corporations are in the Stone Age compared to The Gap, change is in the air. While the overall percentage of women GCs is still lamentable, that bump in the number of female GCs in the Fortune 500 (48 to 61) in the last few years is notable. “The rate of increase in [women GCs in] corporations has been exponential, while the rate for [female partners in] firms has been flat,” says Weisberg about recent gains. “When you’re talking about 500 companies, even a few increases [in the number of women GCs] can be huge.” FIXING THE PIPELINE As for the pipeline problem, women are making sure the talent flows. Some female GCs say they watch out for the women below them in their departments as well as their counterparts in firms — the next crop of GCs. “There is a natural bonding that goes on,” says Kendall about her relationship with outside female counsel. Though the “best person for the job” always wins, Shanahan adds, “I wouldn’t be honest if I said I gave absolutely no preference to women.” So when will women GCs reach the 50 percent mark? Kendall predicts that it will happen “within the next 10 years.” Smith, however, says that it will take “another generation … my daughter’s daughter will have real choices.” But to Kaden, the future may already be here: “You don’t have to go out of your way to find [qualified] women anymore. … We are good, and no one has to do us any favors.” No favors, please, just top jobs. Related chart: Breaking Through Women hold the top legal job at 60 Fortune 500 companies.

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