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Suzanne Serianni Mayes L’91 leads push to increase the number of women on corporate boards

April 01, 2019

As seen in the Penn Law Journal

There is a slow but inexorable increase in the number of women in the boardroom, thanks to the efforts of activists like Suzanne Serianni Mayes L’91.

“I think that folks in the C-suites are starting to feel pressure from investors — there’s a whole movement around investors wanting diverse boards,” said Mayes, a public finance attorney and co-chair of the Public and Project Finance Group at Cozen O’Connor who’s serving her two-year term as past-president of The Forum of Executive Women.

But the new appointments, Mayes said, don’t mean her work is finished. “We’re making headway, but it’s excruciatingly slow,” she said.

The percentage of women on the boards of the largest public companies in the Philadelphia region grew from 11 percent in 2002 to 16 percent in 2016, she said. The national average for women on Fortune 500 executive boards hovers around 20 percent, up from about 10 percent in 1996, according to Forbes.com.

Mayes attributed the slow progress to two major factors: limitless board terms and the fact that men tend to choose new members from among people they know, who, though undoubtedly talented, are generally other men.

Breaking glass ceilings has been Mayes’ passion ever since she recognized, as a student at an all-girls Catholic academy, how much women contributed to the intellectual life of society. She began her law career in 1991, when the time was ripe for public finance and Philadelphia firm Saul Ewing sought a young lawyer willing to try the field for a few months.

Although she was the only woman in the group, Mayes wasn’t intimidated. She appreciated her male colleagues’ welcoming attitude and mentorship as she worked her way up to partner and was put in charge of hiring.

Aware of the gender gap in her line of work, she started a group called Ladies First, which brings together women in public finance. “It set me on fire in terms of young women,” Mayes said. “It’s a cause that’s near and dear to my heart, and The Forum has been an extension of that passion of mine.”

In 2005, she joined The Forum of Executive Women, a prestigious Philadelphia organization that aims to empower and place women in executive positions and boards. Ten years later, she became its president. During her tenure, she focused on fostering closer connections among The Forum’s 450 members. Knowing the value of personal relationships, Mayes began Forum Takes Flight, an annual trip to Canyon Ranch in Massachusetts; established programming to reenergize longtime members; and created an oral history program that features members’ inspirational success stories.

Mayes also created the Forum Ally program, where The Forum partners closely with a nonprofit organization for two years. In addition, on her watch the Forum continued to work with professional search firms to help place women on boards.

“We’re not just saying, ‘Look, we’ve got a problem,’ but actively trying to be a part of the solution since we have a really talented group of women who can serve as speakers, subject matter experts and board members,” Mayes said. “We’re getting the message out about the wealth of female talent here in the Philadelphia region.”