“So why should we hire you?”
The question was terse but fair. I was an engineer who went to law school and was seeking a coveted and rare opportunity to join a preeminent civil rights law firm.
The challenge from the other side of the conference room came from attorney Geraldine Sumter.
I responded, doing my best to show my heart and talent’s true promise to help those unseen, unheard, or harmed.
Thankfully, Geraldine gave me a shot. That she believed in me, both in her gut assessment at the interview and guiding me with her signature tough love, is something for which I’ll be forever grateful.
A few years later, as her go-to young associate and mentee, she firmly stood up for me to a federal court judge. As our hearing started, he assumed I was our client’s wife. “Judge, Ms. Pauling is my law partner,” she shot back.
My eventual decision to leave the firm was heart-wrenching. I effectively switched sides to management-side advocacy. After some shock, she’s continued to show up for me at critical life moments over the last two decades.
Seeing her this past holiday season in my home, now as a friend and running buddy, I marveled at our 25-year evolution. I was moved, realizing that, as a woman with power, Geraldine used it — maybe even gambled with it — as my first career sponsor. I do hope I’ve made her proud.
As I reflect on my experiences, my message to women is to do as Geraldine did: take a chance on one another.
According to a recent McKinsey & Co. study, one major hurdle for women in the workplace is what is described as the “broken rung” problem. For the eighth consecutive year, women are being promoted to the first step up as a manager at a lower level than men. For every 100 men promoted from an entry-level position to a first-level manager role in 2021, only 87 women were similarly promoted. For women of color, the number was even lower: 82. This disparity leads to fewer women being in positions to be promoted to senior leadership roles.
The study also says that Asian women and Black women are less likely to have strong allies on their teams. They are also less likely than white women to say senior colleagues have taken important sponsorship actions on their behalf, such as publicly praising their skills or advocating for a compensation increase for them.
We need sponsors, period. Mentoring is great, but a crucial jumpstart for any career woman is driven by that person who sees a spark, invests in it, and opens doors. And with gains still needed in C-suites, pay, and family support, women can and must do that for each other.
Corie Pauling, ’93, is the president and CEO of the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan.