When Marissa Wesely ’79 was first up for partner at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, she didn’t make it. When she asked why, the managing partner told her: “You are just not visible enough.”
Since then, Wesely has raised not only her own visibility but that of countless others, particularly women, who, as she notes, often have to work the hardest to “find a way to take a seat at the table.”
In her career, she has sometimes been the only woman in the room, advising on high-stakes private-equity and bank finance transactions—work leading her to be named the 2013 Finance Lawyer of the Year by Chambers USA. While practicing at Simpson Thacher, where she did become partner and later served in a management role, she supported professional women to achieve more prominent positions of leadership in law firms and on corporate boards as well as women around the world seeking a better way of life and equal opportunity. Those efforts led to her latest honor, the ABA’s 2014 Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award, for “women lawyers who have excelled in their field and have paved the way to success for other women lawyers.”
Now Wesely is making a transition that aligns with her passionate commitment to women’s rights. This year, she is a fellow at the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative. And she is using the experience to build a foundation for her next stage, which she said will involve bridging the corporate sector and international women’s rights organizations.
She believes that increasingly, corporations are seeing the value of engaging with women. “If you actually fund women, you drive better health and education outcomes not only for them but for their families and communities,” Wesely said. “There’s a lot of focus on women as drivers of transformative change.”
While a partner with her firm (she is now of counsel), Wesely always stayed connected to women’s issues and organizations. She has served on the boards of the Global Fund for Women, which offers grants to support international women’s rights groups; Legal Momentum, a U.S. organization advancing women’s rights; and DirectWomen, which seeks to increase the number of women lawyers on corporate boards. This academic year, she also was co-chair of Celebration 60, an event honoring women graduates from HLS.
Her awareness of women’s issues worldwide started early. In the early 1970s at the age of 16, she traveled to Africa for a summer with her father, who was then the chair of CARE, a humanitarian organization fighting poverty worldwide with a special focus on women. The young woman from the suburbs of New York City witnessed a way of life for many struggling people that has stayed with her to this day.
“You go to a place where people with almost nothing are creatively solving problems,” she recalled. “The women were some of the most resourceful people. Even in very traditional societies, they played very critical roles.”
By the time she graduated from law school, she joked, she thought all problems women faced had been solved. But as she made her way in the law firm environment, she soon realized that change was not happening at the pace she expected. Even after she made partner, in her first partner meeting only a handful of women were dotted among a roomful of men. Since then, she has advocated for more women in leadership positions at her firm and elsewhere.
Drawing from her own experience, Wesely also has advised young women both in speeches and informally about ways to overcome the still large shortfall of women at the table: Part of it is being more visible—doing good work in your office is not enough. Part of it is finding your passion. She did that; even though she never planned for a career in finance, it has allowed her to work on international and development issues that have always interested her. Part of it is making connections. And part of it is speaking up. She is working to ensure that the voices of women—from U.S. boardrooms to small businesses blooming in developing countries—are heard.