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One woman is a presence, three is a voice …

Gotta confess … I don’t get it. At one of the most crucial times in our country to advance women into leadership roles, to shift the balance of power in both our government and corporate sectors, our social media feeds are jammed up with pretty little black and white selfies and hashtags suggesting we have accepted some type of challenge, supporting other women (#Challenge Accepted; #WomenSupportingWomen). Yet, few of these pictures reflect any such activity, only lip service.

There’s no obvious social bent to get women into board seats or political roles or, advance the financial circumstances of single mothers, teachers or those that are unemployed. For the life of me, I can’t figure out what challenge has been accepted. I ask - is simply showing our physical beauty the primary asset we want others to see? Yet again?

Come on gals, there’s a lot at stake here. For the first time in decades, thanks to upheaval, global news and protests everywhere, we are being offered opportunities, the likes of which we have never seen before. Let’s keep our eye on the ball and move it forward, not backwards.

I know many qualified women who should be sitting on the boards of public companies at this very moment. And, there are many open seats. Is this on your radar? It is certainly on mine because I’m clear that this is a way that we can support diversity and truly be women supporting women.

In September 2018, California became the first state to legally compel corporate board diversity with a law mandating that every public company in the state have at least one female director by the end of 2019. The legislation was introduced shortly after the new year, just months after the #MeToo movement sparked a national debate on the lack of equality, protections and representation for women in the workplace.

If companies fail to comply with this mandate, they face a one-time fine of $100,000. By the end of 2021, the law’s requirements ramp up, compelling companies with five board members to have at least two female directors and at least three on six-person boards. If they continue to break the law, they face a steeper penalty of $300,000 for every seat that should be filled by a woman.

Washington state legislation requiring public companies to have a gender diverse board became effective June 11, 2020 with enaction by January 1, 2022. Hawaii is expecting public companies that do business in their state to comply by December 30, 2020. Michigan’s legislation goes into effect January 1, 2021. Some states require seats to be filled, others only require board diversity reporting requirements. New York is “studying” the number of women on boards in its state.

Companies across the country, spurred on by activist investors, such as BlackRock and Goldman Sachs have been actively diversifying boards in their portfolios. As added incentive, the CEO of Goldman Sachs has announced that his bank will stop taking companies public in the U.S. and Europe unless they have at least one diverse board member.

Is their push back? Of course – isn’t there always when the dime turns? One shareholder lawsuit by a white retired Baker McKenzie male partner suggests that mandating gender diversity ultimately hurts women "by relegating them to quota hires and making them seem like space fillers." It goes on to say that “the law is not only deeply patronizing to women, it is also plainly unconstitutional and discriminatory." Sounds like man speak to me …

Personally, women are looking for a seat at the table, the world filler doesn’t trigger me. Call it whatever you want. As a law student, there were only six women in my class and, I was reminded daily that I was taking up one of the guy’s seats. I learned to tune out that nonsense and went on to a fulfilling and meaningful career as a practicing attorney.

Here’s the deal ladies, this is your chance to join the party if you stay focused. As board directors, you will have the opportunity to influence the choice of the executive management team and ensure that they are committed to diversity at every level, with metrics to report back to the board. Ultimately, it is the management of the companies that define the culture.

Unfortunately, although we are making progress adding women to boards, senior and mid-level leadership teams at most companies remain nearly as white and male-dominated as they’ve always been. We need your voice, your input and elbow grease! We need you to ask the tough questions and help find the solutions.

I don’t need to repeat statistics that show why companies with diverse boards are more successful. Collective wisdom and a broad array of talents and experiences offer a competitive edge that drops directly to the bottom line. But, what I may need to remind you is that you are qualified. You bring a set of skills and talents that no one else on the planet has, a unique point of view born from your personal life experience.

Historically, boards sought candidates who had served as public company Chief Executives. But, contrary to a perception that women lack experience, don’t forget that board experience may include non-profit boards, school boards or senior level roles that interact with boards frequently. And, board seats are being redefined as functional roles requiring particular expertise, rather than title. Finally, what you know, not who you know, reigns.

Legislation deadlines are creeping closer and there is a flurry of activity to add women to board positions. Public companies pay and pay well! They would rather pay you than pay a hefty fine. So, as Siri says “recalculate.” Let’s focus on supporting women by making sure that we have a voice and a seat at the table - one that will be available to your children and theirs.

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