Olga V. Mack, General Counsel at ClearSlide, a San Francisco-based sales and marketing engagement startup, recently sat down with Thomson Reuters’ Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law (TWLL) initiative to discuss the Women Serve on Boards (WSoB) movement, which has petitioned companies to include women on their boards of directors.
TWLL: What inspired your work on the WSoB movement?
Olga Mack: I knew that the corporate world is male-dominated, but I was surprised to find that as I progress in my career, I’m increasingly finding myself the lone woman in a sea of men. At business meetings or networking events I’m often the only woman or one of the few women in the room! Earlier this year, I learned that according to recent data from S&P Global Market Intelligence, 24 Fortune 500 companies currently have no women on their boards. And out of the companies that do have women on their boards, a majority have only one or two “token” women.
I was disappointed, not just for me, but for all professional women. 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? It’s a matter of representation. The scarcity of female role models at the top levels of leadership is making it nearly impossible to truly achieve parity in Fortune 500 corporations. Change must start at the top.
TWLL: How did you choose Land O’Lakes and Discovery Communications — two companies on the list of 24 — to receive the first two requesting they add at least one woman to its board of directors?
Olga Mack: So, I started two petitions and social media campaigns requesting the two companies each add at least one woman to its board of directors. I believe that all 24 of the Fortune 500 companies without women board members should be petitioned. I was inspired to direct my first campaigns toward Land O’Lakes and Discovery communications, however, because these companies produce products that are heavily marketed toward women who are purchasing food, entertainment, and educational products for their families. At companies that aim to market toward women, women’s perspectives should be represented!
TWLL: What are the systemic or structural barriers is the WSoB addressing?
Olga Mack: We are focused on changing the conversation about women in corporate leadership. Too often, people are asking the wrong questions. Usually, when I talk about adding women to boards, I’m asked one question: “Why?” Everyone wants to know why we should add women to leadership positions. My answer is, “why not?” Women make up more than 50% of the population. Why does the default board member or executive have to be male?
And it’s not about “adding women” for diversity’s sake — it’s about undoing the damage of excluding women in the first place. It’s about acknowledging that women have been historically excluded from areas where they both belong and excel. We already know that women are qualified and get the job done. Numerous studies show that including women in a company’s leadership maximizes long-term shareholder value. We should stop asking the question of how much value women bring to a company.
TWLL: You have mentioned that most people support you but sit on the sidelines because of fear? Tell me more about that.
Olga Mack: After I launched my social media campaigns, I discovered an unexpectedly large group of “silent supporters.” These people messaged me, telling me they support my campaigns, but can’t publicly show support because they work for a specific employer, or they’re searching for a new job. This can only be described as an unadulterated fear of standing up for what they believe in. And these “silent supporters” weren’t outliers — the number of “silent supporters” is at least as high as the number of people who signed the petitions. I was dismayed but also intrigued. I was asking them to sign a petition, not march in the streets or actively protest in front of their offices. What were they so afraid of?
See the Land O’Lakes and Discovery Communications petitions from “Women Serve on Boards” here.
I reviewed all the messages and saw some common themes. Some professionals believed that signing the petitions and speaking out would violate what others in the industry deem “appropriate.” Other professionals — disproportionately women — were afraid of retaliation from their employers, clients or business partners. Many were seriously concerned that they would be singled out or blacklisted for publicly expressing their support. Others worried that their support for my petitions may surface during an employer’s background check, costing them their dream job.
TWLL: Do you feel one has to be outspoken and courageous in this matter, or do you fear becoming disliked in the gender equity movement?
Olga Mack: I don’t think of myself as particularly courageous or fearless, even though my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances have been describing me this way since before (and certainly after) I started the WSoB movement. I actually consider myself an introvert. I am generally more likely to listen and observe than speak up.
But my goal is to see gender parity within my lifetime. As I progress through my career and listen to troubling stories of women around me, I can’t stop imagining a better future for my two daughters.
As for fear — we all have fears. The difference between those people that make a change in their lives and the lives of others, and those who stand by doing nothing, is not how much fear they have. It’s how honest they are in facing their fears and what they do to constructively address it.
The WSoB movement is one answer to my fear of the consequences of perpetuating the status quo.