Michele Coleman Mayes
Michele Coleman Mayes

Several prominent general counsel were among those weighing in on diversity, leadership and work-life balance at an event hosted by the New Girls’ Network, an organization that aims to turn social science into real-life strategies for women looking to climb the corporate ladder.

In two separate discussions, panelists discussed the above topics, as well as the ways in which women—particularly mothers—still face bias in the workplace. Professor Joan Williams, a founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law, noted that female employees are often forced to repeatedly prove their worth, while their male counterparts are judged on potential, and that many women struggle to balance assertiveness with likeability in the workplace.

The absence of flexible leave time is also an ongoing problem for both men and women, said Williams, noting that male employees who take parental leave frequently see their professional advancement stall.

But some companies are taking steps to correct these imbalances. New York Public Library General Counsel Michele Coleman Mayes recounted the measures that she took to minimize bias when doling out promotions, raises or bonuses in her former role as GC of Allstate Insurance Co.

Mayes’ team, assuming that people have certain implicit biases, came up with “rules of engagement” that required those in charge of hiring or compensation decisions to look at an employee’s measurable, recent performance, instead of allowing long-past mistakes or stereotypes to enter into the equation.

Another GC weighing in on the issues of leadership and women’s advancement was Pfizer Inc.’s top lawyer, Amy Schulman, who noted that women are often too unwilling to use the goodwill that they have built up with colleagues or supervisors. “Don’t be afraid to spend some of your political capital,” she advised.

In the end, Schulman said, an excellent leader—male or female—is someone who is motivated by passion, and who puts the strength of the business before their own individual advancement. “The further up you go, the less it is about you and the more it is about the organization,” she said.

Learn more about the New Girls’ Network here.

For more career coverage on InsideCounsel, see:

8 noteworthy in-house career moves

The art of GC peer networking

Part-time lawyers are mostly women

ABA launches gender pay equality initiative

Improve work-life balance by improving time management