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A tough climb

Women still face obstacles to advancement

It’s not easy to intimidate Kim Guadagno. The 30-year Monmouth County resident and partner at Connell Foley — who was ranked by NJBIZ in 2019 as one of the Best 50 Women in Business — has scored a series of firsts: first woman to be elected Monmouth County Sheriff, and first-ever lieutenant governor. Still, she recalled, “some people have tried to limit my options because I’m a woman.”

Former Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, now a partner at Connell Foley, says she is disturbed by evidence that other women are facing roadblocks to career advancement. – FULFILL

When she ran for sheriff in 2007, for example, “during the party nomination selection process, I was asked how I expected to take care of my three children if I was elected sheriff. That kind of question would never be asked of a man.”

Her response: “I ignored them, worked harder and was better prepared, and I was elected,” Guadagno noted. “By the way, my children managed to survive. One is in the Air Force, one just graduated from Dartmouth, and one just graduated from high school.”

Closed-door policy

Despite her own success, Guadagno is disturbed by evidence that indicates many other women are facing roadblocks to career advancement. “Women comprise about 51 percent of the population in New Jersey,” she said. “But that’s not even close to their representation in the boardroom. I’ve walked into a lot of boardrooms and you can tell at a glance that management has a long way to go.”

A conversation with Kim Guadagno

Were you born in New Jersey?
I was born in Iowa [her speech still reflects a Midwestern intonation], but my dad was a salesman so we moved all over the country, changing residences at least 22 times before I started law school.

How’d you end up in New Jersey?
I married a Jersey guy and this became my adopted state.

You were the first woman to be elected as Monmouth County Sheriff – what gave you the confidence to run?
When you have a chance to do something no one else has done, you can’t say no.

What have you done to help women advance in business?
In politics and now [as a Connell Foley partner] I’ve brought women to events with me where they can meet people and make connections. Connell Foley has a women’s initiative program, and among other activities, I’ve brought young associates to panels and encouraged them to lead panel events; and I’ve brought them to networking and other events. Men have the “old boy’s network,” and women need their own version, too.

When politicians and other high-profile figures — including some jurists — step down from their position and join a law firm, they often come in as “counsel” or “of counsel,” which the American Bar Association suggests does not have the same shared liability and managerial responsibilities as a partner. But you joined the firm as a partner, even though you didn’t come with a book of business. How’d you do it?
I’m a good negotiator [chuckles]. I’ve always loved law. I was a lawyer for 25 years before I entered politics, and I’m only 60 — I wanted to continue to stay active.

Besides that barrier to women’s progress, Guadagno says the lack of board-level diversity can hurt profits, too. “Policy decisions about product mix and other issues reflect the people who are sitting around the board table,” she said. “When people who make up more than half the state’s population aren’t at the table, you’re missing out on valuable insights.”

Sometimes, the bias can be unconscious.

“Research into science of the brain indicates that human beings are unconsciously predisposed to certain patterns of thinking which influence decision making,” according to an announcement from the New Jersey Association for Justice, a statewide association of more than 2,700 private practice and public service attorneys, paralegals, law clerks, law students and others. “In spite of laws established to prevent discrimination, people and organizations still behave in biased ways that advantage some and disadvantage others.”

Society often views damaging actions that occur without conscious intent of harm more favorably, compared to intentional bias, according to the NJAJ. “However, serious harm to individuals and groups can be done without conscious intent. Stereotypes, micro inequities, prejudice and discrimination can stem from unconscious bias. The ways in which bias influences human interaction can support or restrict development of diverse and inclusive workplaces, organizations and institutions.”

Even as lieutenant governor, Guadagno witnessed unconscious bias in her office. “I was preparing to speak to a group of business owners about women-in-business issues, and had been reviewing my briefing notes [prepared by a staffer] beforehand,” she recalled. “I was surprised to see no reference at all in the notes to childcare issues. The fact is, women are generally the primary caregivers, but some men just don’t understand that women need affordable, reliable daycare.”

Guadagno’s never been a quitter, in her personal or professional life, and she had some advice for women who want to get ahead, either as an entrepreneur or within an established business.

“Start off by getting the best education you can she said, so you can be better prepared than anyone else in the room,” she said. “Then, don’t be afraid to take a shot and go for whatever it is you want. If I didn’t take some risks, I would never have been the first female sheriff in Monmouth County; and the first lieutenant governor in New Jersey.”