Born in the small town of Titusville, Pa., Deborah Majoras contends that her father “was a feminist before his time.”
Growing up with a strong male role model helped her build confidence and jump into leadership positions later in her career as Chief Legal Officer & Secretary of Procter & Gamble. “I was very shy as a child and scared to try new things, but my father had none of it,” Majoras says, laughing. “He knew life was tough and I better get used to it!”
In college, she considered teaching and social work — some might say, traditionally female professions. But senior year, a professor took her aside and told her, ‘You want to change things? Get to the top and change it from that vantage point.’
“That was the first time anyone had talked to me that way,” she remembers. “And that’s when I thought about law school.”
Growing up with a strong male role model helped her build confidence and jump into leadership positions later in her career as Chief Legal Officer & Secretary of Procter & Gamble.
That conversation, plus a short January-term internship at the Mexican American Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., won her over to the legal profession. “My concept of lawyers was my uncle, a small town, birth-to-death lawyer,” she says. “I admired him a lot. I moved to Washington, and went with girlfriends to get a job as a receptionist at an Ohio law firm, Porter Wright.”
She attended the University of Virginia law school (UVA), where in the mid-1980s some men were “complaining that women were taking up spaces in law school that [men] should have. That’s when I first really thought about barriers to women” in the law.
After law school, Majoras joined Jones Day in 1991. “I was determined to get into leadership positions, but it had nothing to do with our gender. It had to be on our own merits — so much so that at Jones Day, I didn’t want to go to any of the firm’s women’s events,” Majoras explains, adding that she thought at the time that ‘I don’t need that. I’m doing my own thing.’
In fact, despite a lot of wonderful women at the firm, Majoras said a lot of her mentors continued to be men. “So, I didn’t think about it from a gender aspect. People wanted to ask me questions like ‘How is it to be a female lawyer at Jones Day?’ but I didn’t think about myself as female. I’m a lawyer coming into the office every day.”
Majoras made partner in 1998 — just nine years out of law school. “I had great mentors,” she contends.
Charles James, a colleague at Jones Day, had been tapped by the Bush Administration to lead the Antitrust division at the Justice Department, and Majoras followed him to become principal deputy assistant attorney general in 2001. “Suddenly, I was in charge of a few hundred lawyers,” she notes. “Leading people is very different — it was a big change.” Then, her boss left just 18 months in to her new job. “I had hoped to get his job when he left. It was a two-person race — a guy I knew well, still one of my best friends, and I were in the running,” she recalls. “He got the job. I was pretty crushed.”
But careers aren’t always made in a straight line — but rather a zig-zag. She stuck it out at Justice. “The career folks at Justice have a lot more respect if they know you’re not just in it for yourself.”
In 2004, Majoras was asked to take the top job at the Federal Trade Commission. White House personnel had told the president that she was loyal to the team because of her time at Justice. It was a lesson she took to heart. “Everyone is always watching.”
Then came a huge leap of faith. Majoras was approached by P&G for the its chief legal officer spot. However, she learned that the company culture was to promote from within — not from outside. “Ultimately the CEO offered me a job, but not the job I interviewed for,” she says, adding she became VP and General Counsel. Today, she holds the Chief Legal Officer title.
“They wanted people to have a chance to work with me and get behind me as a colleague and leader,” she explains, adding that P&G was afraid that if she was brought in at the top spot, it would have been harder for her to demonstrate that.
How did she know it would work out?
“The experience at Justice helped me,” she says, adding that P&G’s culture is dependent on relationships, and initially, she didn’t have any. “Looking back, I really wanted the chance to lead a great group of lawyers, so I’m glad I did it that way.”
To read about how Deborah Majoras advises women in the legal industry see Part 2 of this interview.