Woodrow Wilson News & Publications
WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Spring 2012
An Unexpected Career
Over three decades, Pamela McGuire WF '69 lives the changing American workplace
Pamela McGuire WF '69 expected to pursue a Ph.D. in art history and become an archaeologist. Instead, she carved out a career in corporate law that spanned major changes in the way America does business.
As a Vassar undergraduate in the 1960s, Ms. McGuire became "politically alive," she recalls, and discovered an interest in urban issues. Although she initially accepted a spot in New York University's art history program, she decided to change course and pursue her master's in urban planning at Columbia University. That nascent field, however, " took a very broad brush approach to a number of different disciplines—social work, architectural history, architectural planning, urbanism, political science and legal issues as well. It touched on all of those things, but at a very high level that I just didn't find very satisfying. But by that time, my interest was really piqued." She entered a combined degree program that allowed her to complete her master's in urban planning while attending law school.
After her law school graduation, Ms. McGuire remained interested in public service. She clerked for a federal judge, then served in the U.S. attorney's office. After almost three years at the federal level, she joined a New York State commission investigating the Urban Development Corporation, drawing on her legal and urban planning education. Soon after, she found herself in a Wall Street law firm—"too tedious, not enough people contact, and not enough practical application for my taste."
Then, in 1977, came a surprising position as an operations lawyer for PepsiCo. "The idea, to me, of going to a big corporation was sort of an anathema and I never saw myself doing that," Ms. McGuire recalls, "but actually I really liked it. I think largely it was because I was in a setting where what I did everyday made a difference to somebody," she says. "Doing a Pepsi ad, in the greater scheme of things, does it matter to the world? No, but in terms of job satisfaction, I got an enormous amount of satisfaction knowing that what I did solved somebody's problem. I was doing something that was important to the company and to the individuals for whom I was working and it made a difference to them."
When she first joined PepsiCo, Ms. McGuire was one of just four women executives. Over her three decades with the company, she experienced a dramatic change of attitudes. While she always felt recognized and rewarded for her work—"I give Pepsi huge credit for that"—Ms. McGuire says she felt she had to work significantly harder than the comparable male executive, as did so many women in business at the time. "Whatever we did, we fell into a stereotype and it was very hard to break out of that and to be taken seriously." Ms. McGuire recalls work style issues as especially frustrating: One year she was urged to be tougher, the next she was told she was too tough. "A lot of women," she recalls, "felt [they] couldn't win."
Ms. McGuire particularly felt the pressure to perform after she had children. "When my first child was born I went back to work after eight weeks and the second time after five weeks because I was needed to work on a large contract." Even with such short maternity leaves, she recalls some resentment: "I got comments from the men about having to fill in for me while I was out. There was no support system." A subsequent request to move to part-time status to be with her children was denied and later played a role in her consideration for a promotion. "I was told that people doubted my commitment because I had asked to work part-time,'" she recalls. "I ended up getting the promotion anyway. But it was pretty clear that asking for accommodation to help with work-life balance was seen as a sign of weakness and lack of career commitment."
"But all that changed dramatically," she points out, "and from probably 1990 on, it was actually helpful to be a woman. I had the great benefit of being [at PepsiCo] at a time when companies were under pressure to promote women and to have more women in senior positions. Because people knew that I was willing to work hard and willing to make the sacrifices necessary to get the job done, I was given the opportunities."
In 1998, when PepsiCo's bottling and distribution division became a separate, publicly-traded company, Pepsi Bottling Group (PBG), Ms. McGuire was appointed general counsel. "That gave me my first real experience in corporate governance," she says, and it introduced her to the complex issues involved with being a publicly traded company—"working with a board of directors, auditors, accountants; SEC reporting; all of the New York Stock Exchange issues."
Such issues would become even trickier with the 2002 passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which set strict governance and compliance standards for publicly traded companies. "PBG, like all companies, went through major changes in how we did our business in order to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley," recalls Ms. McGuire. "Issues around the independence of the board became very critical for us because we had two PepsiCo directors on our board…. there were very important issues around making sure that we were deciding our key business strategies independently of PepsiCo while still satisfying them as our major shareholder."
Parent company PepsiCo ultimately created a senior vice presidency of business practices and compliance to uphold business ethics and standards; in 2005, Ms. McGuire was named to the position. As retirement neared, she says, "I thought setting up this compliance function at PepsiCo would be a good thing to do, which it turned out to be. It definitely had its challenges, to put it mildly," she says, "but it was a marvelous experience." Her role was "to ensure that everything we did was at the highest standards of ethical conduct," explains Ms. McGuire. "To make sure that we had all the systems in place that would provide the guidance and training to all of our employees for complying with the law."
The training component was an integral part of the job, says Ms. McGuire, and the teaching experience she gained during her time as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow "came in handy. Throughout my corporate career, but especially in the last five years, a great deal of my work was spent educating people, and thinking about how to communicate effectively the major issues I was trying to get across." She developed online training programs and traveled around the world to educate employees on how to address a range of "ethical challenges," from antitrust compliance and corrupt business practices to expense account fraud, sexual harassment, bullying, and more.
"The whole idea is making sure that all of your employees, from the most junior level all the way up to the CEO, understand the rules that they have to play by and understand the consequences for not abiding by those rules," says Ms. McGuire. "The challenge being—and this is what I think most readers who aren't business people would relate to—to create an ethical climate within the company, and to have it be so instinctive that people know the right thing to do. And that the climate and the culture of the company encourages and mandates that people act ethically."
In retirement, Ms. McGuire has returned to her art history roots, pursuing a master's degree in museum studies through Johns Hopkins University. She also works with the Rye (NY) Historical Society, organizing public education projects and serving as secretary of the board of trustees. Her early liberal arts education, she says, has always been invaluable. "It gave me a breadth of perspective that I think people without that liberal arts training didn't have. It allows you to develop a whole range of other interests and I just think that makes you a better lawyer because you have a broader view of the world."