Feminists often bemoan the fact that only a small percentage of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Women are still, on average, paid less than men in a wide variety of professions. In the legal profession, women are still very much underrepresented among law firm partners.
The glass ceiling
The phenomenon of the "glass ceiling" is complex. It can't be explained by the simple proposition that "men are trying to keep women down," (the stereotyped feminist position). It can't be explained by the opposing proposition "women aren't as competent as men" (the stereotyped anti-feminist position). In my view, a lot of it has to do with choices women are socialized to make. Here are some observations I have made in my professional life:
1) In my state, the significant majority of litigators in private law firms are men. In the public sector and non-profit world, however, the split is even or possibly female-dominated.
2) In the law firms, where I have practiced, the women seem far less comfortable with marketing (i.e. trying to get new clients) than men.
3) Women are far, far, far less likely than men to engage in salary negotiations. This observation is backed up by at least one study, and I'm sure there are many more out there. The study I found (through a quick Google search) showed that 57% of male Carnegie Mellon graduates surveyed had negotiated their salaries, compared to only 7% of female Carnegie Mellon graduates.
Apparently, women, including self-proclaimed feminists, still tend to be uncomfortable with anything that could be construed as "selfish" or "power mongering" or "arrogant." My nephew unabashedly tells people that he wants to "make money" when he grows up. My niece says she wants to "help people."
My career path
I certainly always fell in the category of wanting to "help people." I went to law school to become a public defender. But through various twists and turns, I wound up here at my 100-attorney law firm "making money." The public defender thing didn't work out because I got married out of law school and I didn't get hired by the public defender program in my husband's home state. So instead, I "helped people" by working as a prosecutor for five years. I loved my job but it eventually got to the point where I felt I had mastered it. I wanted to move to another level and learn something new about how to argue cases in court. So I got a job in a top-quality boutique litigation firm. There, I not only learned about civil litigation but I also learned about the business side of the law-- how to run a law firm, how to market one's services, and yes, how to make money. Much to my surprise, I found that I love all of those things, especially marketing.
Last spring I was recruited to join another firm, a very difficult and wrenching decision for me. However, for various reasons too complicated to explain here, it was obvious that joining this new, rather large firm would be the best move for me professionally. I forced myself to engage (for the first time in my life) in aggressive salary negotiations. Since arriving at my new firm, I have worked on forging relationships with existing clients, and taking the lead in my practice group's marketing initiatives. Although I am relatively junior in a large firm top-heavy with partners, I have made sure to present myself as someone who knows what she is doing, and as someone who is ambitious and expects to advance within the firm.
I never thought that I would find myself thinking this way. I still don't care that much about money for its own sake (although, of course, I want my family to be comfortable). It comes down to the fact that I am a person who likes games and strategy and competition. Trial work satisfies those needs for me, but I have done a ton of trial work already. Marketing (internally at the firm and externally to clients) also meets those needs. I find it immensely satisfying for its own sake -- the thrill of the chase, I guess.
Where feminism comes in
So where does feminism come in? It comes in because I have had to struggle a lot against an ingrained sense that it is wrong, or even dangerous, for me to present myself in a light that is "selfish" or "arrogant" or "aggressive." Although I have engaged in negotiations zillions of times on behalf of other people, negotiating my OWN salary went severely against the grain. It seemed somehow wrong to demand anything on my own behalf or to trumpet my own accomplishments and potential worth to the firm. I really didn't even have the social vocabulary to do so.
Nonetheless, I forced myself to negotiate my own salary even though it would have been easier to simply accept what was offered. Doing so was, for lack of a better term, "empowering." I have also found ways to let my supervisors and clients know about my accomplishments and my abilities. I have learned the importance of projecting confidence.
I am motivated by the love of my job, my competitive spirit, and yes, oh yes, the money, too. But it also means something to me that I am doing something that goes against the grain of how I was socialized, something that is still to this day somewhat contrary to the expectations for women. In fact, I would have given in on the salary negotiations but for the fact that I did not want to feed into the common perception among employers that women don't ask for more.
Maybe this sounds awfully self-congratulary (well, who cares, it's an anonymous blog!), but I think that aggressively positioning myself to be economically successful is a feminist act. Yes, making money benefits me personally. But it also is one more (small) way to defeat the still pervasive stereotype of women as shrinking violets who will not stand up for themselves in the world of business.