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Gina Carter says when she started her law career more than 30 years ago, she imagined then that there would be far more women in leadership positions in the field than there are now. She began an intellectual property practice in the late 1980s at a time when few women attorneys practiced in that area.

But Carter, now an attorney and shareholder at Whyte, Hirschboeck, Dudek in Madison hasn’t let that observation slow her efforts to make the workplace better for women or to give younger girls support even before they start their working lives. YWCA Madison has named her as of one of its six 2016 Women of Distinction for her leadership, mentoring, and volunteer work in the Madison area.

She spoke recently about her approach to empowering women professionally and the value of being involved in the community.

What progress have you seen for women in the legal field since you started your career?

Well, I wish I could say that I’ve seen tremendous progress but I can’t say that. In fact, I would say that I always thought that women, at least in the private practice of law, would have made more significant gains than they have, and the way one measures that is how many women end up being partners, owners, in law firms, and then in positions of leadership.

I do think that there has been more progress in corporations that hire lawyers inside their corporations. I think we see many more general counsels or chief legal officers of companies that are female.

What obstacles do you still see for women to climb professionally?

It’s a very competitive space and women are not as accustomed to or not socialized to speak up for themselves, and they don’t because there aren’t that many senior women in firms. They don’t have that many role models. The fewer women that are in leadership, the fewer women there will be because — whether it’s the law or something else — if you’re trying to envision yourself and all you see are men in the senior ranks, you say, ”Well, maybe I can’t achieve this,” so that’s self-perpetuating.

It’s sort of the politics of a workplace. Women aren’t as good at the politics. They’re good at personal relationships but maybe not at navigating workplace politics and that’s something you need support and teaching to navigate.

And then there is, of course, how employers deal with family leave, and you know how long it takes for women to recover from a timeout. Firms have to be very vigilant and diligent in knowing how to handle family leave so that it doesn’t negatively affect women’s progress within firms, or within any workplaces.

As a leader in the workplace, what is your approach to balancing family and your career and how do you talk to other women about that?

The way I look at a career is that it’s long. As an owner and leader in my own firm, we don’t like to have turnover. We don’t like to have people leaving, so we want to be very attuned to accommodating the demands of family. A little bit of time off or accommodation for family issues is small in comparison to how long a career is. I’ve always counseled when I’ve been in positions of leadership in my various firms that I’ve been at is: let’s have the long view. Having happy, loyal employees is something that we should strive for. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it's good business.

What do you know now that you wish you would’ve known as a young professional just starting out?

There are a lot of things. One of them is that I didn’t know that a lot of the relationships that I had in college or even law school are ones that I should’ve made some effort to keep up with from a business point of view. I wasn’t from Wisconsin to begin with, but even so, that didn’t matter. I didn’t realize I should’ve tried to keep in better touch to help bring business to my firm. I didn’t understand the importance of networking at the very beginning.

I did realize that it was important if I got more experience as a lawyer, as a professional woman, that it was important for me to mentor others because I don’t think I had quite enough of that — and I’m not blaming anybody. You know partly it was maybe thinking I could do it alone or something. I wish I’d asked for help more or advice more than I did. Now, obviously, you don’t force it on anybody, but I try as much as possible to take time to ask people how they’re doing, what they’re feeling about how their career is going, and those kinds of things. I think it’s important for more senior women whatever profession they’re in — actually men and women — to reach out to the younger professionals among them.

What are your tips for young professionals about identify and asking someone to be your mentor?

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Well, you might have to make more than one ask to have it happen, but you’re right — it’s hard. I think it’s important to observe before you approach someone for that role. It’s important to observe people in your workplace and identify the people who you feel like have a style that is consistent with your thinking about how you would like to do things. There might be somebody who is wildly successful in your company, but if you can’t do what that person does in the way they do it, then maybe it’s not a good match. I think when you approach somebody, you need to be specific about why them, and what it is you’re seeking.

In the abstract it sounds like if I’m going to mentor someone that it’s going to take a lot of time, but I have found that it really doesn’t. Part of work that’s enjoyable to most of us, no matter what our profession, is connecting with our colleagues in meaningful way: giving advice, answering questions, talking about how you navigated the politics or the clients or whatever. Young people shouldn’t assume that they will be spurned in their efforts to connect with the senior people in their companies.

You founded Girls'BIZ, an entrepreneurial program that teaches girls professional skills through business. Why do you see business as a vehicle to empower and educate girls?

The idea was teaching entrepreneurial skills to young girls — middle school, high school girls — so that they would then create a product or service and offer that to the community for the period of time that they were in the program.

We felt using a business was a vehicle to teach life skills, whether it was being able to speak with adults and make the case for your product or service, or whether it was analysis and pricing and those kinds of things — making a product profitably and being able to sell it. Also, teamwork. Some people were really good at the marketing part of it. Some of the young women that were shyer maybe were going to be better at the financial part of it, but just working as a team to make that happen. I think business is a good vehicle to teach girls life skills and also to give them confidence as they present to the public, and of course that leads to self-esteem and other really good things.

Early in your career you did volunteer work at Taycheedah Correctional Facility for women in Fond du Lac. How did that experience inform the rest of your volunteer work?

What I learned is that for many of the people incarcerated there, the deck was stacked against them probably before they were born. In going through the files of the prisoners that I would work with, you would see the broken homes, the foster care system, maybe learning disabilities that went unaddressed. There were so many things like this in their files, and it rather explained how they ended up in our criminal justice system. It made a big impression on me such that I felt like getting involved. Doing that work certainly made me realize the importance of programs and for kids especially and for single mothers who are trying to raise the kids.


Katelyn Ferral is The Cap Times' public affairs and investigative reporter. She joined the paper in 2015 and previously covered the energy industry for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. She's also covered state politics and government in North Carolina.