Women in corporate leadership to take more than new California law, North Bay professionals say

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On the heels of a new law requiring women to be represented on boards of directors, a number of businesswomen in the North Bay agree it’s a significant step toward bringing gender parity to the workplace — but there is still work to do.

The gender representation on boards of directors law went into effect on Jan. 1, requiring at least one woman director sit on the board of directors at all publicly held companies with headquarters in California. By the end of 2021, that number could go up to three, depending on the board’s size. Steep penalties are on the line for noncompliance.

The reasoning for the legislation, according to the bill’s verbiage, is that it will boost the state’s economy, improve opportunities for women in the workplace and protect California’s taxpayers, shareholders and retirees.

However, the law could face legal challenges, according to Jennifer Barrera, CalChamber senior vice president of policy.

“Some company who’s impacted by the law could file a legal claim suggesting that it’s unconstitutional for a company to retain a member on their board of directors solely based upon their gender,” Barrera said on CalChamber’s website. “However, until that legal action happens, it is the law in California.”

More broadly, efforts to bring permanent gender parity among business leaders continues in the North Bay.

“We really need to engage men in the idea of women’s leadership,” said Michelle Ausburn, CPA, a partner at BPM, a Santa Rosa accounting firm. BPM has 45 partners, of which 25 percent are women, she said. “I was going to (a lot of) training and seminars where women in business are supporting each other, but men at the top have to change.”

Ausburn also leads BPM’s Women’s Initiative Now!, designed to bring gender diversity to leadership roles. Topics include under-the-radar problems such as unconscious bias, defined as learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional or deeply ingrained and can result in divisive behavior.

“We’ve provided training that’s more inclusive for everyone,” Ausburn said. “We don’t want men to feel left out of that important initiative because everybody has a place.”

Brenda Gilchrist, co-founder of Santa Rosa-based The HR Matrix LLC, echoed the importance of gender equality, and also cautioned against perpetuating a problem that isn’t always realistic.

“There’s been a lot of great men that have been generous and supportive and want to see women succeed,” Gilchrist said. “I think women have equal opportunity if they want it, in most industries and in day-to-day life.”

Gilchrist, who earlier in her career worked as a corporate vice president of HR, said she encourages women to negotiate a fair and equitable compensation package when considering a job offer.

“Don’t be afraid to ask,” she said. “Men, for the most part, aren’t afraid to ask for what they want.”

Gilchrist also is part of a Lean In group in Sonoma County. Lean In, which forges women’s empowerment, became popular in 2013 with the release of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg’s book by the same name and subsequent website, Leanin.org.

“We support each other as female business owners and help inspire other women in business,” Gilchrist said. “We’ve invited younger women into the group to support them as mentors and help them with (matters), such as how to ask for a raise or negotiate a contract with a supplier.”

Ausburn said there’s another meaningful way to help elevate women in the workplace.

“One of the things that we talk a lot about is women mentoring other women, but we don’t talk as much about advocacy, and I think there’s a pretty big difference. Advocacy is really what people say about you when you’re not there,” Ausburn said. “We’re focusing on men being advocates for men and women. And you almost need that, because there’s not enough women at the top to advocate for all the women underneath them.”

Dawn Ross, a partner at Santa Rosa-based law firm Carle Mackie Power & Ross, is involved in several groups to help advance women in the legal profession.

“We do tend to be underrepresented still in leadership positions in companies, so I think it’s important to lead the way and to help women find that same path that I have found and some of my contemporaries have found,” Ross said. “Also, women who become mothers have unique challenges to deal with in a career. What happens when you want to get off the track that you’re on full time or go part time for a couple years, or take three months off for birth? Are you going to be put on the mommy track? It’s really helpful to talk to each other.”

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