Women are increasingly landing the general counsel role at major U.S. companies, including Silicon Valley’s biggest names, a Fenwick & West report revealed this week.
The Fenwick & West Gender Diversity Survey, published Tuesday, compared gender representation at the executive level for S&P 100 companies and the top 150 public technology companies based in Silicon Valley, the SV150.
S&P 100 companies were more likely to have a woman general counsel than their SV150 counterparts, 29.8 percent versus 27.2 percent, in the 2018 proxy season.
“I think there’s been a more concerted effort at larger companies … to be attendant to diversity sooner, and there are younger and smaller companies in the SV150. And so that concerted effort may not be quite as caught up,” said David Bell, a partner in Fenwick’s corporate practice who co-authored the report.
He noted S&P 100 companies are likely to have mature, large legal departments and thus larger recruiting pools than young SV150 companies, which may make it easier for the former to find and promote diverse talent.
But the S&P 100 didn’t always have the lead in GC gender equity. Bell and co-author Fenwick partner Dawn Belt wrote the SV150 “more frequently had a woman serving as the senior legal executive” in previous decades. As the benefits of diverse leadership gained traction, larger companies could dedicate more resources to searching for women executives than SV150 peers, Bell said.
With time and resources, Silicon Valley may catch up. The SV150′s top 15 companies, including Apple Inc., Alphabet Inc. and Intel Corp., are more likely than the average S&P 100 company to have a woman general counsel, at 30.8 percent. Bell said that indicates tech isn’t “an outlier if you adjust for size” when it comes to diversity at the GC level.
Fenwick’s report also found that in SV150 companies the executive role women are most likely to hold is general counsel. Susanna McDonald, the vice president and chief legal officer of the Association of Corporate Counsel, said this matches her anecdotal evidence.
“I think you would probably observe [this trend] outside of the Silicon Valley area as well, even though I can’t speak to any specific data that I can point to,” McDonald said. “I believe that if you look at the C-suite as a whole, the variance of women in those roles, I think you would see a higher variance of their being general counsel than other executive officers.”
McDonald and the report’s authors both said women’s prevalence in the general counsel role might be tied to their high departure rates from big law firms. When women face barriers to leadership roles at firms, they may choose to grow their careers in-house instead, the lawyers said.
Belt said it’s possible SV150 companies will see an uptick in women general counsel, and women executives in general, as California companies diversify their boards. Last year, California became the first U.S. state to require companies have at least one woman on their board by 2020.
“Board members, maybe they’re not the ones actively recruiting but they are the people who may mention [potential candidates],” Belt said. With more women on boards, Belt said the “network effect” may increase gender diversity in executive hiring, too.