Women helping women, as discussed in my last post, is a powerful part of the ongoing drive toward advancement and equality in the legal profession. However, that is not the entire story, for men play an equally—if not more—vital role in the process.

For one thing, men are uniquely positioned to help women, if for no other reason than that they created and continue to maintain, at least on a percentage basis, the power structure. Men still hold four-fifths of Fortune 500 general counsel jobs—and even though the one-fifth held by women is among the better overall leadership percentages across major industry sectors—it is still an imbalanced percentage.

While it is manifestly indefensible to deny women equal access in today’s world, men, one could argue, do not necessarily have to make room for their gender counterparts. Yet, there are men who are willing and prepared to support women. That’s an interesting question for me: Why do some men make meaningful investments in guiding and elevating women?

I asked a female friend (and former Fortune 500 general counsel) about this. “Men respond positively to me,” she said, “because I am attractive.” What she meant by this was that her attractiveness is the complete package: strong, confident, bold, accomplished and perhaps most important of all, comfortable in her own skin. 

That’s a strong statement about getting noticed and getting ahead on your own terms. At InsideCounsel’s recent Transformative Leadership Awards (TLA) event, Christine Edwards, who has served multiple tours of duty as general counsel to financial companies, was honored with the Mary Ann Hynes Pioneer Award. In her acceptance speech, she recounted being feted as a newly minted general counsel early in her career by male general counsel from Wall Street brokerage firms. This welcoming luncheon was traditionally held at a club that did not admit women; the group arranged to move the event to a club that did.

Men taking precisely that sort of action—seeing women not by gender, but as professionals deserving of equality—is a powerful instrument of change. An exemplar of this practice throughout his career is Thomas Sabatino. Presently executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Walgreens, Tom (also honored at TLA, with the Thomas A. Mars Pathmaker Award) has made a distinct point of advancing diversity, empowerment and achievement of women and people of color in every general counsel role he has held, including American Medical International, Baxter International, Schering-Plough, United Airlines and now Walgreens.

“The first firm where I practiced had a very egalitarian culture,” Tom relates. “There were no distinctions between men and women, and in fact, I was mentored there by a female attorney.” It was when he moved on that he began experiencing disparity, and his reaction to this has informed his support of women ever since. “I simply did not think that it was right that distinctions were made based on gender and ethnicity,” he says.

Since then, and to this day, Tom has been a standout mentor, sponsor and all-around advocate for equality based on professionalism—not gender—in the companies where he works. He asks it of his outside counsel; he will call people out in meetings when “distinctions” are being made. “It’s about creating a culture that allows all voices to be heard and all talents to be recognized, regardless of gender or ethnicity,” he says.

Jan Stern Reed was associate general counsel and corporate secretary at Baxter under Tom and is now executive vice president of human resources, general counsel and corporate secretary at Solo Cup Company. “Tom’s inclusion of attorneys of color and women isn’t so much a duty, but rather an innate part of who he is,” she says. “Tom has a huge amount of respect for the female voice.”

Men helping women are a powerful hope for the future.

As always, let me know about your own experiences by responding to this posting.