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Penn Law hosts discussion on women in corporate leadership

October 25, 2018

By Joyee Au Yeung

On October 24, Brande Stellings came to Penn Law to share her perspective on her experience as a woman in the corporate workplace, and why female leadership on corporate boards is more important than ever. Stellings is Senior Vice President, Advisory Services at Catalyst, a non-profit dedicated to helping companies facilitate women’s progress and leadership at work. In her role at Catalyst, Stellings works with companies to prepare women for leadership in the boardroom. The discussion was sponsored by Penn Law’s Office of International Programs, the Penn Law Women in Entrepreneurship Law Society, Perry World House, the Wharton School, and the Harvard Law Women’s Association.

Penn Law’s Rangita de Silva de Alwis, Associate Dean for International Programs, introduced Stellings and opened the conversation by saying that the discussion “is not just about women on corporate boards, this is also about the anniversary of the #MeToo movement.” Associate Dean de Silva de Alwis also noted in her introduction that Penn Law is responding to the recent quotas for women on board just introduced by California this month.

Stellings and de Silva de Alwis went on to talk about female representation in corporate leadership, and where change should begin. Stelling has spent 25 years working at Catalyst, and has advised many Fortune 500 companies on women’s leadership and how to nurture diversity in their workplaces.

Speaking from experience, Stellings said, “[w]e saw last year more departures of women than additions of women CEOS,” and pointed out the similar lack of women sitting on corporate boards of directors.

As of 2018, only five percent of Fortune 500 companies are led by female CEOs, with women of color being particularly underrepresented. Stellings asked the audience to think about the inherent power structure in companies: “Who is sitting on boards?” and “How can we make boards reflect America?” These questions lingered in the room as the conversation turned to Stellings’s personal ventures.

De Silva de Alwis mentioned that Stellings is in a period of career transition, as she is founding her own company with two other female partners. Stellings joked that taking this leap of faith is part of the “liberation of turning 50,” but said she also hopes for her firm to be a “women’s firm.”

On a more serious note, she acknowledged the need for “#MeToo” workplace assessments, and said she wants to advise corporate boards on the important work that needs to be done in our society.

Her vision is to create a mission-driven consulting company that serves as a trusted advisor for firms. Stellings shared that she met her current partners through networking, and that they connected due to their similar goals.

She advised young women to “build networks and social capital … Think about who knows you, who knows what you are great at, who can toot your horn for you.”

The discussion also included questions from the audience. When asked about the so-called “Queen Bee syndrome” in corporations, which arises when women in positions of authority decline to help other women succeed, Stellings reflected on how women are stuck in an impossible “double bind,” where they have to choose between being warm or being competent, since they are not perceived as typical leaders.

“[W]hen you think of adjectives for leaders, you think of adjectives that are predominantly used to describe men,” she said. However, she noted, a study on the “Queen Bee syndrome” in corporations found that women are actually more likely to sponsor and mentor other women.

Still, Stellings argued, the only real solution is to have more women leaders in corporations who are able to set examples for other women, as well as prove that there are many different ways for women to be successful leaders.

Stellings concluded by arguing that people in power need to focus on increasing diversity and inclusion, and that doing so is not just the responsibility of women and people of color. Women’s leadership does not need to be “fixed,” she said, it just needs to be more represented.