By Olga V. Mack
“Would you like to try one of our hand-crafted beers? They’re very good,” the server asked me as I entered an after-work business meeting. I declined and instead opted for sparkling water. After putting on my name tag, I turned around and found myself in the middle of a full room. I stood there, carefully observing, trying to gauge the tone and tenor of multiple conversations. Then I noticed a distinct feeling, one I rarely experience: the feeling of being out of place. I brushed the feeling away. It’s just because I’m new here, I told myself.
As I scanned the room for a group to approach, I suddenly realized that everyone around me was a man. In fact, I was surrounded by what seemed like a sea of men. Maybe I’m just nervous — another feeling rare to me — and the nerves are affecting my otherwise good vision, I told myself. I eyed the crowd more deliberately. I couldn’t possibly be the only woman in the room. Finally, one of the men extended his hand, introduced himself, and asked, “Who are you with?” Puzzled, I took my time to sip, smile, and look him in the eye. With an exaggerated Eastern European accent, I simply stated: “I’m unsupervised tonight. And sir, imagine all the damage I can do.” Pleased that I finally found a use for my accent in public, I excused myself to refill my sparkling water. I had handled the situation as best I could, but inside I was completely appalled.
Did I mention that this happened in 2016 — or that I was in a supposedly “forward thinking” country like the United States? And yet, as I progress in my career, I increasingly find myself the lone woman in a sea of men. That meeting was not the first of its kind, but for me, it was the last straw.
Later that day I learned that according to recent data from S&P Global Market Intelligence, 24 Fortune 500 companies currently have no women on their boards. That’s a list of shame. How embarrassing! So last century, I thought to myself. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. How fundamentally unfair and repugnant is it that being a woman can make it essentially impossible to serve on some boards of directors — no matter how hard-working, deserving, or qualified you are?
And that’s when I had a WTH (what the heck, to be politically correct) moment. I am not familiar with WTH moments, the same way I am not familiar with feeling out of place or nervous. But this situation certainly warranted one of those rare moments of pure, unadulterated WTH.
No, this was not the first time I realized that business and law are not friendly to women. During my years as an attorney, I saw women drop out, make difficult reproductive choices, and struggle to ramp up their career after taking extensive leaves. I suffered no delusion of gender equality. In fact, except for the occasional complaint, I implicitly accepted the inequality as a status quo to navigate, not to change. In the “old boys’ club” of corporate law, I took the “good girl” approach. After all, the gender inequality didn’t make any of my career aspirations impossible. It merely made them less likely. Gender inequality wasn’t a roadblock so much as a hurdle that I could overcome over time if I tried a little harder.
What made the “list of shame” a WTH moment for me was the overarching feeling of futility. Working harder, taking more chances, and relying on one’s intelligence would make no difference for a woman seeking a board position at any one of those 24 companies. The cold truth stared me right in the face — being a woman makes board service at certain companies impossible, null and void, and prohibitive. That’s unfair!
Right there and then, I gave up the “good girl” approach. I decided to start a petition movement that makes a fiscal and social case for taking initial steps toward gender equality on boards. My first two petitions — Land O’Lakes and Discovery Communications — were sent to just two companies on the list of 24, and I requested that they add at least one woman to its board of directors. I hope that others will join me and start petitioning the other 22 companies on the list, using my petitions as a template or as inspiration to create their own compelling calls to action. (If you’d like to see the petitions, send me an email and I will send along.)
Adding women to boards makes business sense for each company on this list: it will significantly increase profits, boost its competitive advantage, and put the company on the right side of the issue. Taking steps toward gender equality on boards is also the right move socially. Companies that aim to improve and shape society can’t do so unless they reflect society. Upcoming generations need a future where gender inequality is a thing of the past, not a status quo to accept or even a hurdle to overcome. And that’s why I hope you sign the petition, and join me in asking these 24 companies to step into gender equality.