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Learn the ‘game’ and ‘speak up,’ panelists tell women looking to climb to corporate boardrooms

It was standing room only in Costa Mesa on Wednesday afternoon as about 150 women, at attention and armed with laptops and notebooks, gathered to share tips, network and learn how they can make their way into corporate boardrooms.

The Center Club was packed for a “Women on Boards” panel that discussed the future of women in senior leadership positions and steps to get there. Three panelists shared what they’ve learned with the audience.

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It’s all a game, they said.

“You’re either hyper-visible or invisible,” said panelist Julie Hill, a board member for Anthem Inc. “So speak up, don’t be silent.”

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Hill also advised the women to have a sense of humor, and she joked about learning to play golf.

Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire, chief executive of the 2020 Women on Boards National Campaign, which aims to increase the number of women on U.S. corporate boards to 20% or more by 2020, moderated the discussion. She said a business is meant to be lucrative, so women need to come up with a strategy to prove they will add value.

A diverse boardroom provides different experiences and perspectives, which limits potential holes in certain areas and makes for a more thorough way of doing business, said panelist Jane Buchan, chief executive of Pacific Alternative Asset Management Co., or PAAMCO.

The panelists said people want to hire someone who’s knowledgeable but also who makes them feel comfortable — someone they can joke with but who also stands his or her ground.

A point reiterated by all the panelists is that one should apply for a position even without meeting all the qualifications. Hill said many women apply for a job only when they meet more than half the qualifications. Men, on the other hand, apply if they meet only one or two.

Audience member Marice DePasquale said she knows what it’s like to take the leap. She’s a member of three boards, one of them the Mesa Water District’s.

She also is on the UC Irvine School of Social Sciences Dean’s Leadership Council with one other woman, and the Seneca Family of Agencies board, which is about 40% women.

“Men promote each other, we don’t,” DePasquale said. “We are our own greatest advocates. It’s time to change the conversation.”

Networking, cultivating relationships, doing research and being prepared — even to attend a cocktail party — are important, speakers said.

“Our goal was really to find women to be leaders in our organization,” said Renee Jacobs, regional development director at ProVisors. “We want our company to look like the world. There are two sides to every story, and a woman’s side needs to be told.”

California Senate Bill 826, which has passed the Legislature and as of Friday was awaiting the governor’s signature to become law, would require publicly traded companies headquartered in California to place at least one woman on their boards by 2019. But speakers at Wednesday’s discussion said women would still face a challenge to claim seats because many people in power like the boardrooms the way they are.

Audience member Janise Graham, who is black, said she feels particularly marginalized.

“If I’m not the person to extend the hand, then I don’t get anything,” said Graham, a business owner. “[Bias] is there, it’s real.”

But even though she occasionally feels defeated, she’s thriving in the corporate world, she said.

She tells her three girls that “this world was not created for us in mind” and that they need to be tenacious and disciplined.

“Sometimes I do things out of spite, like I’m not going to go away,” said Graham, who has put 34 years into the business world. “It’s a game, and I play the game.”

Shannon M. Hoffman is a contributor to Times Community News.

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