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Why Do Women Dominate Public Interest?

I was poking around the Perspectives magazine articles available online, and I came across An Eye-Opening Tool for Wide-Eyed Law Students, a piece last year about the Equal Justice Works ranking of law schools by their public interest programs. I found two things interesting about the article. First, the approximately 27% of law graduates who enter public interest has remained fairly static since the 1980s. Second, women are presumed to benefit more from pressure on law schools to provide more support for public interest job hunting since women are more likely to take public interest jobs (the article cites a study that roughly 6% of women graduates go into public interest while only roughly 3% of men do--don't ask me why 6+3 doesn't equal 27%, apparently the stats cited in the article are from different data or counting different types of jobs as public interest).

Fuzzy math aside, if women enter public interest at roughly double the rate of men, the number of total grads going into public interest is about the same since 1980, and the number of women law grads has increased from about 34% in 1980 to about 50% today, then one of two things must be true: the number of law students has increased since 1980, so the 27% figure indicates that both more men and more women are going into public interest than in 1980. Or, women are taking jobs previously taken by men in public interest. Clearly there is a lot more data needed to figure out if there is a meaningful trend and what the cause might be, but my interest is piqued: why the gender differential?

We could go the old and tired road of women having more of a desire to help the poor and legally challenged because of our different, kinder, brain chemistry. Perhaps socialization accounts for a large part of it because whether or not there are actual differences between men and women and desire to take a salary cut to help people as a career, no one can argue that men face more pressure to make money, while women are socialized into often valuing and adopting "helpful" perspectives. If this were the case, then the differential could be explained by women being more inclined to value work helping people and less inclined to value high pay, leading them to seek (voluntarily) public interest jobs (and vice versa for men).

But, two other possibilities jumped into my mind: what if women don't "voluntarily" enter at higher numbers into public interest? For example, women might have a harder time getting hired by private jobs than their male counterparts. Or, they might have bad experiences as summer associates or new hires in private jobs that lead them to leave and turn to public interest. For example, I had a friend who decided firm life "wasn't for her" not because she didn't like the legal work but because she didn't feel comfortable in the culture. Some firms are better than others this way, but if women succeed in private practice by "trying to conform [themselves] to some of the male-ness of the practice" (previously blogged about on Ms. JD), then what does that suggest about women who either can't or choose not to "conform"? Perhaps they technically have the choice to work in private practice, but the personal cost becomes higher.

Another possibility: women would enjoy working in private practice but "choose" public interest because of work-life balance and childcare issues. It's no secret that women working for the government or some nonprofits work shorter and more flexible hours (though this stereotype certainly doesn't apply to all public interest jobs). There is another cost to the pressures that push women into public interest: men are pushed out. I have no doubt that men who would otherwise enjoy working in public interest lose the opportunity because of societal pressures to always choose the more lucrative and not the most enjoyable career path.

4 Comments

jessie

A professor of mine once commented that all the two lawyer couples he knew were comprised of a public interest wife and a biglaw husband.  Since then my own experience has generally confirmed that observation.  I think an important consideration in finding a work-life balance in a dual earner household that's relevant to this point is the different pressure many men may feel to provide the maximum financial support for their families.
It's a cliche that bright eyed idealistic students enter law school hoping to "change the world" and leave to slave at large corporate firms.  It may be that just as many men as women are interested in serving the public interest, but feel greater pressure to establish financial security, and so forgoe the work that inspired their legal education for more lucrative careers.  Women, by virtue of traditional, gender norms may feel freer to continue on their orginal path.
This is all pure conjucture, with one supporting anecdote: Boyfriend and I worked in public interest jobs before law school, but after our clerkships only I am returning to one now that we're out.  Boyfriend is headed to a firm, looking for financial stability and a clear career path.

Judith

All of my friends from law school who are still in public interest (10 years on) are married or coupled with someone who makes big bucks.  You cannot live in this area on a public interest salary. 
In my experience, most male lawyers have a stay-at-home spouse, while most female lawyers do not (although there are definitely exceptions).  That, I think, accounts for most of the difference.

Enviro Lawyer

I agree; my husband is a teacher, and when I considered career paths,  he said "we can afford only one public interest wage earner in the household." To which I took great offense, and later came around; while public interest can make law school loan payments maneagable (forgiveness, income based repayment), it makes other things barely mangeable, e.g. childcare and vacations.

vanessaP

Yes I do agree with the article. Women really enjoy working public interest because of work-life balance and childcare issues. Speaking of women, I would just like to say something about women who are fond of plastic surgery. Some women are becoming extremely obsessed with beauty and longing to look younger and more attractive, even if it means taking out numerous cash advances.  Solange Magnano, for instance, is a perfect example. She essentially committed suicide, leaving her husband a widower and her 7 year old twins without a mother,in the name of a good looking butt. I can’t understand why some would put their self into danger just only to look beautiful.

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