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A trailblazer for women

by Sarah Bello,

Collins Legal Center
JoAnne Brandes
JoAnne Brandes JD’78

Sitting in a 1980s-era conference room with 12 males looking back at her, 31-year-old JoAnne Brandes JD’78 spelled it out to her boss, Sam Johnson, leader of global company, SC Johnson. They were going to open a childcare center for their employees — and they were going to do it in four months, opening at a location she’d found, with space for 200 children. 

The men turned to see Johnson’s reaction — and to Brandes’ surprise, he began to laugh. “This better work, JoAnne,” he said.

As a young attorney for the burgeoning business and a new mom, Brandes was stunned at how unaccommodating the work world was for those with children. Obsessed with her concerns about the availability of quality childcare, she wanted to do something about it. 

“I thought, ‘I can hire someone to come into my house, but what do others do?’ I got very concerned about that,” Brandes explains. “I’m a firm believer that you don’t break any glass ceiling unless you’re pulling other women up with you.”

Becoming a mother wasn’t Brandes’ first experience feeling undervalued as a woman. There were not many women in her law school class. At the time of her application, there were discussions nationally about too few women being accepted into law school. She had chosen Willamette Law in the first place because it had blind admission.

“I didn’t want anyone to think I got in because I was a female,” she says. 

As she interviewed with firms during her third year, she remembers a partner from a large practice who explained that she was very nice and academically qualified — but she wasn’t going to get a job at any firm simply because she was a woman. 

Realizing she was on her own, she and her spouse left Oregon and went back to her home state of Wisconsin. She quickly got a job at a large firm there, working long hours. Being evaluated on the quality of her work, rather than her gender, was gratifying. When she got a call from SC Johnson, she wasn’t interested. 

After a sudden death in the family, Brandes decided she needed to be with her parents. She reevaluated and accepted SC Johnson’s offer to join the company’s law department, focusing on litigation and international corporate transactions. There for over 25 years, she absolutely loved the global work, fast pace and diversity. As a woman, she broke down barriers. 

“I was the only woman in that law department, one of very few women in any type of leadership at that large company,” she says. “But it was a great career.”

Brandes retired from the SC Johnson family of companies as the executive vice president, CAO, general counsel and secretary of JohnsonDiversey, Inc., responsible for all legal matters, human resources, communications, public affairs and administration for the company and its more than 65 subsidiaries. 

That conversation in the boardroom led to SC Johnson being named to the list of the 10 Best Companies for Working Mothers. Brandes was named Working Mother of the Year by Working Mother magazine. At the end of its first year, the employee childcare grew from 78 to 250 children served. Eventually, it began caring for more than 500 children annually.

“It may seem like a small accomplishment in my career, but for me, it was one of my most significant contributions,” Brandes says. “It felt better than completing billion-dollar acquisitions.”

In her retirement, Brandes has stayed engaged at the highest level of business, serving on several large corporate and college boards. Brandes has always had a great interest in education, having served for many years as a regent of the University of Wisconsin system.

“One of my greatest learnings is that my success is not in achieving the dreams and goals I set out to pursue — to me, success comes from how I walked the path toward those dreams,” she says. “What I quickly realized is that when I reached those goals I set, I didn’t feel excitement and satisfaction because I reached them. Instead, I immediately turned around to look at the path I took. 

“And what I learned is that the true success came from doing the right thing on the way to reaching those goals, helping others, keeping my responsibilities and using my potential, while fighting off arrogance, greed and apathy. It’s all about the depth of your character, not about the achievement of goals.”

About Willamette University College of Law

Willamette University College of Law was the first law school to open in the Pacific Northwest. Building on deep historic roots, we focus with pride on educating the next generation of problem-solving lawyers and leaders. Our location in Salem, Oregon, directly across the street from the Oregon State Capitol and Supreme Court, cannot be matched in the region. Our thought-leading scholars advance and promote our shared responsibility to make a difference in society, placing justice, fairness, and equality at the heart of everything we do.

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