US Attorney Carmen Ortiz rallies women business leaders

United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz on Tuesday urged female business leaders to help other women succeed in their fields, citing the continued lack of women in leadership roles at the nation’s top companies.

Speaking during a breakfast forum at the Seaport Boston Hotel, Ortiz, whose office is prosecuting James “Whitey” Bulger and alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, described the gender gap in stark terms.

She said that just 18 percent of general counsel jobs at Fortune 500 companies are currently held by women, and 16.1 percent of all board members at those firms were women last year.

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In addition, Ortiz, 57, the first woman and first Hispanic US attorney in Massachusetts, said women of color held just 3 percent of all board seats in 2010 and 2011.

“The truth is that we all need to work together to improve these statistics,” Ortiz told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce Women’s Network Breakfast, according to a transcript of her remarks.

“We should be motivated by the fact that our common voice grows stronger by the day. We must use our voice to get in the game and compete – we should not be content to sit back and watch.”

Ortiz added, “As savvy professional women, you are uniquely positioned to be role models. I urge you to share the skills and wisdom you’ve perfected over the years for the betterment of others; be an advocate and get involved in the community!”

The George Washington University Law School graduate also spoke of her rise from “humble beginnings,” growing up in a housing project in Spanish Harlem and later joining the US Department of Justice as a trial lawyer in 1981 and working on criminal justice reforms in Guatemala in a post at Harvard Law School.

She also discussed her tenure at a private law firm, where she focused on civil, criminal, and government agency litigation.

“I enjoyed my work as a criminal defense attorney, representing people who had gotten into trouble and needed help,” Ortiz said.

She offered management advice, as well.

“I think that every organization is afflicted by some degree of conflict,” Ortiz said. “But it is the duty of leaders to remain above those disputes. Our role is not to take a side, but to mediate disputes.”

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