This is a continuation of my examination of the factors cited in the New York Times that may pose barriers for women aspiring to rise to partnerships in major law firms:
3) ABITRARY MALE CONTROL OF KEY MANAGEMENT COMMITTEES. This one caught my attention since I have never served, or been asked to serve, on a law firm management committee. The article did not cite any studies or statistics regarding whether women are asked to serve on law firm management committees to the same degree as men. At my last firm, however, one of the junior male associates told me that he thought it was odd that he was asked to serve on a committee while the very competent female associate who started at the same time he did was not asked. Of course, I remember thinking, "Well, yeah, but you're just on the library committee." On the other hand, I was never on any committees either and most of my male colleagues were. I never really sat down and figured out who was on what committees, but it's possible this guy was on to something. My plan at my current firm is to spend some time figuring out what committee would be desirable for me in terms of my talents and in terms of advancement within the firm, and then towards the end of the year lobby to be on that committee.
4) ISOLATION. One source quoted in the New York Times article noted "how lonely life at a law firm can feel for women if they stay on the partnership track and find fewer women around them as they ascend." This source, who has since adjusted to life at her firm after establishing a thriving environmental law practice said, "I saw other women arrive at the firm, struggle, and leave . . . I never felt like I belonged." This is another area where I think being able to develop strong inter-personal relationships with male colleagues is important. I don't mean to put the onus entirely on women here either. I think that professional men have a moral obligation to make sure that their female colleagues feel welcomed into the fold! (Or vice-versa in female-dominated professions!) It also makes good business sense for professional men -- since you never know when your colleagues, whether male or female, will be in a position to help you professionally.
Women attorneys were very much a minority at my last firm, but I never felt isolated. I worked with a great group of guys whom I still see regularly for lunch. That having been said, it occurs to me that it is not at all a bad thing for women who are in the minority to reach out to each other. At my last firm, the most senior woman in the firm took the initiative every quarter or every six months or so to get all the women attorneys together for lunch. I thought that worked out very well -- but I would caution against women "clumping together" all the time, a phenomenon I have noted in my current firm and have described here.
5) SUBTLE BIASES AGAINST WOMEN. Another source in the article observed, "Women are held to higher standards, and if they don't jump up and down like a man would at a meeting they aren't seen as partnership material." While I don't think I have necessarily seen or experienced this at either of my law firms, it rings true to me. If a woman attorney behaves in a stereotypically feminine way (like speaking softly, or sounding hesitant), I can imagine people leaping to the conclusion quite quickly that she doesn't have the chops to be an "aggressive" litigator because her demeanor may seem to reaffirm pre-existing beliefs about women in general. Of course, that kind of bias ignores the fact that being an "aggressive" litigator doesn't necessarily mean being a loud, in-your-face kind of personality. In the best sense, aggressive litigation is more about being very prepared, being strategically aggressive, and never shying away from trying a case if necessary. The problem is that even good lawyers may still equate an aggressive demeanor with being an aggressive litigator.
On the other hand, it's hard to parse out because I can imagine a quiet and diffident guy having problems too. On the third hand, women may be more likely to be quiet and diffident due to socialization and cultural expectations and a woman's quietness and diffidence is more likely to reinforce ingrained beliefs about women's essential nature.
I have no way of really knowing, but I think I may have experienced that kind of subtle gender bias in my first job as a prosecutor when I got fired. That first year when I didn't know which way was up in a courtroom, I am sure that I came off as timid and I think that apparent timidity probably made me seem "girly" in a way that didn't go over well with my male boss. The fact that I actually was getting results in some tough cases was not enough to counteract the deadly effect of my quiet demeanor. On the other hand, except for my male boss, all the other lawyers in the office were women --but they were all macho, gunslinging women, or women who had established their professional competence before coming to this particular office.
I like to think that over the past eight years, I have developed a professional persona that is both assertive but not off-putting. That can be a delicate balancing act for anyone but I think it can be a trickier proposition for women due to both internalized beliefs and external expectations. Ideally a good professional persona requires a matter-of-fact willingness to state what one's needs and desires are and a refusal to compromise on the important things combined with reasonableness and a friendly (but not puppy-dog friendly) demeanor.
6) THE MATERNAL WALL. The maternal wall is bad, bad news in my book. The maternal wall refers to the assumption that mothers will be less willing to work hard than men or than childless women. Nicole Black has observed in the comments on this site that a woman who leaves early to care for a sick child is viewed far less generously than a man who leaves early to play golf.
Personally, as a childless woman, I have not had any direct experience with the maternal wall. Tellingly enough, at my last firm, the 22 male lawyers all had kids, whereas the 8 female lawyers were all married but childless. I had a conniption at that firm when I discovered that the firm had a "maternity leave" policy but no "paternity leave" policy. I had a second conniption when the partners looked at me like I had three heads when I said there needed to be a "paternity leave" policy. Fortunately, they came around and adopted a paternity leave policy that was identical to the maternity leave policy. (I should note that I didn't actually have a conniption in front of the partners. In my capacity as an employment law advisor, I merely pointed out the potential discrimination claims that could arise from having an unequal leave policy.)
At my current firm, there are plenty of lawyers who are also mothers, but I have not been here long enough to get a sense as to whether there is a bias against them. The president of my firm is herself a mother, although she took several years off when her children were young.
7) SELF-PROMOTION. I think this is another biggie. For whatever reason, most likely to do with socialization from earliest childhood, women in general seem to be more reluctant to tout their accomplishments and to make demands than men are. I have already written at length about this here. I think this general truth (backed up by at least one study) leads to a stereotype that makes it harder for even assertive women to negotiate salaries or partnerships. If women are believed to be likely to accept what is offered without negotiating, then the incentive is to offer women less rather than more in the first instance, and then to stonewall attempts at negotiation.
For me, it has taken a conscious effort and a lot of practice to get used to promoting myself. Now I positively enjoy it. I have no trouble informing or reminding a higher-up that I have tried a lot of difficult cases or that I have won important motions for summary judgment or what have you. Heck, I'll even bring it up when I am speaking at a seminar. It was harder for me to learn to ask for more money in salary negotiations but I was very glad during my last job switch that I forced myself to do it.
I am not sure what the solution to this is other than trying to go against the grain on individual level. I think one possibly beneficial step might be to teach students of both sexes at the high school, college, or graduate school levels how to most effectively conduct themselves in the business world. It is crucial to know how to strike that balance between being too diffident and too overbearing.
Alright -- next up for tomorrow's installment, the real biggie: BILLABLE HOURS! (Thunder clap!) Stay tuned for more!