May 02, 2007
Why Aren't We There Yet?
Posted by Lisa Fairfax

Today's Boston Globe reports on a study to be released today about the persistance of the gap between men and women in the legal profession.  The Globe opens with this statement:

"For women, the law remains a frustrating profession.  Female lawyers continue to face intractable challenges in their attempts to become partners, causing them to abandon law firm careers -- and the legal profession entirely -- at a dramatically higher rate than men. . ."

The study, conducted by the MIT Workplace Center and several bar associations surveyed 1,000 Massachusetts men and women lawyers in the state's 100 largest firms.  The study highlights the gap between the experience of men and women in the profession.  According to the report, men and women enter the law firm in essentially equal numbers, but women leave the partnership track in far greater numbers than men.  As a result, only 17% of law firm partners are women.  The study finds that 31% of women associates leave private practice entirely, as compared with 18% of men. 

But the clear message behind the study is the difficulties women continue to confront balancing work-family issues.  According to the Globe, the study finds that 35% of women with children leave private practice entirely as compared with 15% of men with children.  Moreover, nearly 40% of women with children have worked part-time at some point, while almost no men have done so.  Then too, when women leave private practice, they tend to seek out work with more flexible schedules such as careers with nonprofits or government agencies.  Despite these attempts, some 46% of women who leave the law firm, leave the practice of law entirely, while fewer than one-third of men who leave law firms also leave the practice of law entirely.  A summary of the report from the MIT Workplace Center notes that nearly 70% of men with children have spouses or partners with less work-related commitments.  Women, on the other hand, tend to have spouses or partners with equal or greater career commitments.

The Globe also notes the important consequences of these gender gaps for the presence of women in leadership positions.  Indeed, as women either leave the law firm or the law entirely, the pool for talented women judges, law professors and law firm managers either stagnates or shrinks.

The study is a depressing commentary on our profession, but hardly a new one.  One key problem is that for years people in the profession have clung to the notion that as women enter law schools and law firms in greater numbers, they will ascend to leadership positions in greater numbers.  This notion has enabled many in the profession to be satisfied with making changes at the margins without any real adjustment in the law firm culture as a whole--which tends to be problematic for both men and women.  This recent study only confirms what we already know and what many other studies have confirmed--the changes at the margins are not working and as a result the legal profession, particularly law firms, are losing talented women. 

The question is, will this study do anything more than its predecessors to prompt genuine change in the profession or will it create a flurry of intense discussion followed by business as usual?

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Comments (7)

1. Posted by M. Hodak on May 2, 2007 @ 15:29 | Permalink

My guess is the flurry and business as usual. What I'm wondering, though, is why this necessarily affects women's representation in law firm management and academia. Was this part of the study, or speculation? Anecdotally, I see the proportion of women growing in academia. Non-partner management and professorships offer much more life-work flexibility.


2. Posted by Hmm on May 2, 2007 @ 16:36 | Permalink

I know you've probably heard this before. But I'm not sure that the study points to anything that we should consider problematic. It can be read as merely indicating that women are more likely than man to conclude that they want to spend more time raising their children than climbing the career ladder. Is this a bad thing? Women have a natural connection to their children that men lack: Birth. Women must take some period of time off of work to give birth and recover (though I've heard that some superhuman female partners barely miss a beat). Isn't it natural that they'd want to take more time off to nurture their newborn child?

Also, if the solution to this problem is that firms must be more accommodating of women who want to work part time, then I argue that it would be unfair not to extend similar benefits to men. We men want to spend time with our kids, too!


3. Posted by anonymous on May 2, 2007 @ 17:48 | Permalink

Perhaps women think that they are entitled to equal representation at all levels, and do not compete or work so hard as to really earn the advancement. Men have been conditioned from day one that they will have to compete to rise (despite the truth that connections, wealth and luck play a factor). I don't want to see women up there for the sake of women being up there. I want them to earn their way up. Some do, but many women are competing against the group, the curve so to speak, and thus are not achieving excellence individually. This idea of being the best in the limited group is a woman way of competing often, instead of it coming from a personal drive for excellence. Thus the comparisons of where women as a group are at, and the idea of bringing down women who succeed individually perhaps ignoring the women group of peers.


4. Posted by anonymous on May 2, 2007 @ 17:54 | Permalink

Also, Hmmm's comment is telling.
Because women can bear, an individual woman is lumped into that category, regardless of whether she takes that time off, and spends her time immersed in a childlike world, rather than competing continually in the adult world. It takes plenty of time, sacrifice, and excellence to reach the top for women, and some are help back by the individual choices of others in the group sadly. These women are measured as potentially being in that mother/childhood world, while men are assumed to have someone else playing that role, sitting through those movies, reading those books while the more adult centered women can focus that time more on work, or adult activities.

Men surely benefitted more than non mothers in this family-friendly push to accommodate women in the workplace. It's kind of why I cringe at all the Harry Potter, and sixth grade reading reviews here, occasionally from Gordon, but more and more frequently from Christine.


5. Posted by Jake on May 2, 2007 @ 19:35 | Permalink

Anonymous is quite unfair to Gordon and Christine. Agree with M. Hodak's apparent point that bearing children should not interfere with women lawyers being successful in law firm management and legal academia. The same is true of women who practice law for governmental agencies. If the emphasis is working smarter, rather than harder, as it logically ought to be, women should face no barriers to advancement in the legal profession. Where they do face barriers, it arguably is a product of legal institutions that value working hard more than working smart.

Women lawyers will get the final say in any event since, by and large, they outlive male lawyers. Talk about having the last laugh. One pictures venerable law partner in the afterlife questioning whether he should have been more fair to women lawyers at the Firm. Meanwhile, in his absence, the women lawyers at the Firm are glad the Paleolithic old fart is gone.

Evolution takes millenia, and the practice of law emulates nature in this regard.


6. Posted by anonymous on May 3, 2007 @ 5:41 | Permalink

Agree with M. Hodak's apparent point that bearing children should not interfere with women lawyers being successful in law firm management and legal academia.

Of course it does.
Time spend with childrens books takes away from reading in your chosen field. Every minute spent watching kiddie flicks might be spent by a childless person on adult work. Why should the one who works harder, longer and focuses more on the goal of career success not be more successfull. The athlete who trains hardest and longest to improve themself is going to be better than he who trains part time, or full time but then knocks off when another continues on.

For merit's sake, the numbers of high ranking men and women should not automatically stay the same. That artificially elevates some, who perhaps for whatever reason don't work as hard or as long at their craft as others. Sure motherhood is a fine option, but all options come at costs.

Expecting to be the top performer and a mother can work, if you sacrifice and dedicate yourself to it. But to want it just to even out the men who have been competing competitively presumably (acknowledging wealth and connections factor again) makes for a less competitive model overall.

Sorry if that's unfair Jake, but the childless woman has more resources, more of herself to give, as she hasn't spent that energy elsewhere. Work for better childraising help situations so that more women can continue to concentrate on their work, instead of incorporating their kiddie work into the legal world?


7. Posted by y81 on May 3, 2007 @ 16:08 | Permalink

Maybe the study will prompt self-examination and geniune change among women. At present, very few women are interested in marrying less successful men who might stay at home, raise children, and support their wife's carreer. If more women realized that such a man is the key to professional success, and changed their dating and marriage preferences accordingly, maybe they would be more successful in the law firm world.

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