Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Gender Equity at Law: Life at the big firms for women lawyers

Life at the big firms for women lawyers

Presumed Equal: What America’s Top Women Lawyers Really Think About Their Firms
By Lindsay Blohm and Ashley Riveira
AuthorHouse, 701 pages, $49.99.

The Boston Globe’s Sacha Pfeiffer reviews the third edition of Presumed Equal, a survey of women attorneys at many of the nation’s largest and most prestigious firms. In 1998, the first survey took the measure of what life is like for the women associates and partners. This third edition asked about 4,000 anonymous responders at about 105 big law firms. While outright gender discrimination seems to be happily rare, there is a great deal of inequality of opportunity still. The book tries to give detailed information about the law firms covered, and notes the list of firms that refused to distribute the survey. The sad and most telling statistic is that, despite about 20 years of 50-50 gender representation in law school, only 17% of law firm partners are women. This low number represents a massive failure by law firms to actively support the women attorneys on their staff as they stagger beneath the demands of motherhood and daughterhood . For the sandwich generation, both can be very demanding! Women see the offered “mommy track” as career suicide, and name tells it all. There is no “daddy track” in most people’s vocabulary – and I detect a faint sneer behind the name.

Some of the problem is the inherent differences between men and women. I know some very involved fathers – a real cultural shift that recognizes and values the need for fathers to be there for their children. I applaud this development heartily. But when you take maternity leave, unless it is for an adoption, that employee has just been through a physically exhausting experience giving birth, and may be nursing the baby every 2 hours or so. Paternity leave-takers may have held Mom’s hand through the night and be quite tired, too, but they have not been through quite the same experience. And a caesarian delivery, increasingly common, is major surgery, cutting through muscle layers as well as the uterus to deliver the baby. After those first weeks and months, you can hope for a more equal distribution of effort and involvement between mother and father, but there is no way that gender equity has managed to allow men to give birth or nurse babies. And most families still tag women for day-in, day-out child care, taking care of elderly parents, school meetings, and taking the day off for sick family members.

That means that even-handed policies that look good on paper are not going to deal with an inherently unequal biological reality. Some law firms are doing better than others, but they all need to think more creatively about how to provide the support, culture and programs needed to advance women associates to partner.

In the same issue of the Globe was a fascinating story detailing the development of one of the year’s hottest toys, the animatronic pony Butterscotch from Hasbro. In the article, it was noted that despite efforts in the 1960's-70's to boost gender-neutral toys, the toy aisles are very distinctly pink and blue. That is not entirely the toy manufacturers’ fault. Most boys and girls have distinctly different play preferences. I would not have believed this before having children myself. My son has never been a rowdy kid, but he always had a very strong preference for Legos and machines. My daughter likes Legos well enough, but given sets to play with, always pulled out the little Lego people and animals for special focus.

Those girls grow into women. Those different preferences persist and should be taken into account when thinking about how to support women employees and change a workplace’s culture to truly advance women. I think the same is probably true of supporting and advancing minority employees. Those employers who really value multiculturalism think in very different ways than those who just pay lip service to the idea. Most women feel differently on many levels and have different priorities than most men. I wish I could say we are just the same – it would make arguments for gender equity simpler.

Students at Mizzou will recognize Lady Justice from their Board of Advocates web page.

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