A Seat – and Voice – at the Table: Leaders make sure women’s voices do not fall on deaf male ears

Friday, November 4, 2016 - 11:55

The Sabatino Advocate Award, created by the Women’s In-House Counsel Leadership Institute, goes to a male general counsel who champions women throughout his career. Below, the man for whom the award is named, Thomas J. Sabatino Jr., executive vice president and general counsel of Aetna Inc., discusses the award, his passion for promoting women to senior in-house roles, and the inaugural recipient, Craig Glidden, executive vice president and general counsel of General Motors, who was honored last month at the Horizon Awards Dinner in Washington, D.C. His remarks have been edited for length and style.

MCC: Congratulations on having this award named for you. Tells us about your background with diversity issues and what this means to you.

Sabatino: It’s sort of a humbling experience to have an award named after you. This is something I’ve felt passionately about for a long time. This award focuses on the advancement of women, and the role that men can play, particularly general counsel. It’s something that I’ve always tried to do, going all the way back to when I first became general counsel at Baxter International close to 20 years ago. That’s when I started focusing on the issues that women in the department faced in terms of their continued advancement.

MCC: Tell us about the recipient, Craig Glidden.

Sabatino: It’s pretty clear that he feels very strongly about these issues. He speaks eloquently about the struggles of his own mother, a single mother, and the issues that she dealt with, the roadblocks she faced, and how he saw her overcome it. I am really impressed by him and what he had to say at the award event. It’s an honor to have him recognized with this award.

MCC: You’ve been a GC for a long time. What kind of barriers have you seen to women’s progress in corporate law departments?

Sabatino: Corporate law departments are generally better than law firms, to be honest, but I think we still have a long way to go. The barriers are around opportunity and advancement. Women historically have not been given as many opportunities to advance as men. I don’t know why that is, but it seems pretty clear that it is the case. When they get those opportunities, one of the biggest issues that we have is that the voices of women are not always heard as clearly by men. I don’t know how to say it more delicately than that. It’s an issue of inclusion.

One of the fundamental things that we can do as leaders is be as inclusive as we possibly can. That means all voices need to be heard, and not just by having people at the table. Promoting women to sit at the leadership table within a law department is a great step, but it is only a step. It really comes down to having their voices heard around that table, wherever they come from. That’s been the biggest barrier – having their contributions recognized.

MCC: Many observers attribute this to implicit bias, which can be controversial. What’s your attitude on that?

Sabatino: What ends up happening – and I’ve seen this happen on multiple occasions – is you’re sitting around a room and sharing ideas about how to solve a problem. One of the women at the table offers an answer, and others offer different suggestions. Somewhere along the line, another person, a male at that table, offers the same answer that the woman did, and everyone will say, “Great idea.” It’s almost as if the woman’s voice wasn’t heard. When the man says it, others jump in on it. My job is to say, “That’s great. Jan had a great idea, didn’t she? Glad you recognize it.” That’s the kind of implicit bias that happens day in and day out. It’s amazing to me. My job – any leader’s job – is to make sure that they are being inclusive.

My advice to the men in the room at the awards ceremony was that there are three things they need to do. One is be inclusive. Not just in the hiring and promoting of women but also in having their voices truly heard even when other people aren’t listening. The second is to inspire and encourage women to take on challenges and new opportunities, and to let them know that they are supported. As a leader, I will be there to provide whatever they need to break down the obstacles that get in their way – even those obstacles that we don’t necessarily see as men. The third thing is to be intolerant of bad behavior. It’s not enough to make sure you’re doing the right thing. When others don’t, when the bad behaviors that freeze out women or minimize women or diminish them are seen or heard or acted upon, you have to call people out. If you don’t, that’s incredibly corrosive.

Those three things sound easy, but they’re really hard to do sometimes. If you can do them as a leader, you will be significantly further down the road than 90 percent of people in terms of advancing the role of women.

MCC: It must help immensely when the department has support at the top. Aetna has the credentials. It definitely walks the walk. That must help your department play its part.

Sabatino: The president of the company, Karen Lynch, is a woman. Meg McCarthy is our executive vice president of operations and technology, and she has more people reporting to her than anybody else. Those are two incredibly strong women who lead the way here at Aetna in terms of having women recognized as leaders in this organization.

MCC: What else can you tell us about Craig?

Sabatino: He has done an enormous amount in a short period of time to put women in seats where they will have their voices heard. What I heard in talking to some of the women at the awards event is that he walks the talk. They’re not there as figureheads or because he needs to meet a quota. They’re there because he believes they’re the right people, and their voices are being heard. That is the most powerful thing.

Thomas J. Sabatino Jr. is the Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Aetna.