‘I consider it a win’: Jennifer Siebel Newsom on California’s women on boards law 

Is there a solution to the contentious state of U.S. politics? Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the first partner of the state of California, thinks so, but it requires more women leaders.

“The threefold answer: focusing on our common humanity; getting more women into leadership, especially mothers and women of color; and then obviously, we’ve got to call out those who are profiting off of dividing us,” Newsom said during Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif., last week.

Gender equity has been a priority for Newsom, an award-winning filmmaker and wife of California Governor Gavin Newsom. “One of the initiatives we’ve taken on is SB 826, and making sure that this bill was implemented in a way that benefited women and represented California women,” she said. The California landmark law requires the representation of women on corporate boards of companies headquartered in the state.

“In 2018, when SB 826 was first signed, what we found was that 15.5% of the seats on public company boards were held by women,” Newsom said. Today, 33% of public company board seats in California are held by women, she said. However, there’s still work to do. “Latinos represent 20% of the California population and are less than 2% of public company board seats,” she said.

Along with the progress Newsom noted, there’s also been some pushback. The conservative legal group Judicial Watch challenged the law. And in May, Superior Court Judge Maureen Duffy-Lewis ruled the law violated the right to equal treatment.

“Another judge gave the law a stay in September of this year,” Newsom said. “But regardless, people have moved in the direction of recognizing the value of women’s leadership.”

“Do you consider it a win, generally speaking, regardless of what happens legally?” Fortune’s Michal Lev-Ram asked Newsom. 

“I consider it a win,” she said. “There are so many benefits to women in leadership.” Other states are trying to implement initiatives similar to California’s SB 826, Newsom said. “But it’s important for us to lead in California on these issues,” she said.   

California also has positioned itself as a safe haven for women from states where abortion has been banned. The state has invested more than $200 million dollars in reproductive health, Newsom said. “Part of our reproductive health care package is making sure that we don’t criminalize women for miscarriages on top of abortions, and that we don’t criminalize providers who are actually trying to protect women, whether in state or out of state,” she said. 

“They can’t profit off of exploiting our kids any longer

Newsom is also focusing on the mental health of adolescents. “Increases in depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, that was already happening, but the pandemic, obviously, just pulled the curtain back on that,” she said.

Newsom’s organization, The California Partners Project, is examining how new content and distribution technologies are affecting adolescent mental health. The goal is to clarify and communicate the warning signs and best practices around media and technology.

The California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act was signed into law by Gov. Newsom in September. The bill requires online platforms to proactively evaluate whether their product design or services, including algorithms and ads, may present a danger to minors.

“We’re trying to slowly wake companies up to the fact that they can’t profit off of exploiting our kids any longer,” First Partner Newsom said.  

Realizing your power

Newsom is going to testify against Harvey Weinstein in the second trial in Los Angeles. She did not comment on the case. But Newsom shared her perspective on realizing her power. 

“I think I first discovered my power when I made my documentary Miss Representation, Newsom said. We premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and sold [the documentary] to the Oprah Winfrey Network in 2011. I remember standing in the audience at Sundance; it was standing-room only, and a sold out audience.”

An audience member asked, “‘So, what did you discover making this film?’” Newsom recalled. “And I said, I found my voice.” 

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