Ceteris Paribus: Gender (In)Equity in the Field
Ceteris Paribus: Whether in academia, in practice, or on the bench, women lawyers have yet to achieve gender equity in the legal profession. Despite high numbers of women in law school for years now, the pipeline theory hasn’t proven true! Ceteris Paribus (“all things being equal”) examines contemporary issues of and obstacles to women’s advancement in the field, including the glass ceiling, pay discrimination, sexual harassment, the mommy track, or just plain, old sexism, which still rears its ugly head from time to time. This column will help you identify lingering inequalities in your workplace and offer strategies for coping and best practices for change.
In the last few months of 2010, two major studies on women in the law were released, and both bore bad news. In 2010, the share of women and minority lawyers at major law firms dropped for the first time in the 17 years that the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) has been collecting demographic data on law firms with 700 or more lawyers. Recruiters fear that the diversity setbacks, while seemingly marginal today at less than one percentage point for each category, will be felt roughly seven years from now when partners are reviewing candidates for partnership and finding fewer women and minorities to consider for promotion. Studies by American Lawyer magazine, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, and the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession have similarly noted this slight drop in female and minority representation.
Also in 2010, in November, the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) released their fifth annual Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms, the only national study of the nation’s 200 largest law firms that tracks the progress of women lawyers at all levels of private practice, including the most senior positions, and collects data on firms as a whole rather than from a subset of individual lawyers.” NAWL President Dorian Denburg summarized: “The 2010 NAWL Survey data is stunning for its constancy, underscoring the negative impact that changing law firm structures are having on women’s success in firms. Women attorneys continue to lag behind their male counterparts in firm leadership, equity positions and as rainmakers – three areas so critical to law firm success where women need to be present and be represented.” NAWL Foundation President Stephanie Scharf, partner at Schoeman Updike Kaufman & Scharf in Chicago, pointed out that the survey addresses both the impact of non-partner track roles on women’s advancement and the role that part-time status plays in the retention of women lawyers in private firms: “Women make up the majority of staff and part-time attorneys at large firms. Staff attorney positions offer little possibility of career advancement, and part-time attorneys are often the first to be let go.” The survey shows that over 60% of staff attorneys at AmLaw 100 and 200 firms are women, the highest percentage of women lawyers in any category of practice, and, by definition, a category with little hope of career advancement.
The NAWL Survey also reveals that the percentage of women equity partners has remained constant over the last five years at roughly 15%. It appears to be much more difficult, by a factor of almost 6 to 1, for women to become equity partners in large firms. The good news in the NAWL data is that female associate pay, as it has in previous recent years, appears to be on par with male associate pay. However, the compensation gap widens as you move up firm hierarchy, and this year, the compensation gap widened further at equity level, with women equity partners earning only 85% of compensation earned by male equity partners.
2010 also saw many high profile employment discrimination suits filed against large law firms, including one by a male attorney who is alleging he was fired partly for taking paternity leave. He asserts that Dechert, his employer, fosters a “macho culture” where he was routinely derided for being the primary caretaker for his children. Attaining career-based gender equity (not to mention work/life balance) for heterosexual women depends in large part upon their male partners being able to assume their share of childcare responsibilities. Traditional stereotypes that dictate the male role as breadwinner and the female role as homemaker for heterosexual couples linger, prompting lawyer and feminist philosopher Linda Hirshman to argue that “the thickest glass ceiling is at home.” Although Dechert, or even the legal industry taken generally, is not the only bastion of “macho culture” (societal pressure to assume specific parental gender roles is so widely pervasive in our nation that the last census confirmed that 98% of stay-at-home parents remain women), but one would hope that the law firms would be most aware of the gender neutral aspect of their benefits packages and applicable state and federal family leave law.
As for women in law school, it is often reported that we have “taken over,” that nearly all law schools are over 50% female nowadays, but that is inaccurate. In May 2010, Catalyst issued a report Women in Law in the U.S., which reported that women made up 44% of law school students in 2008-2009, and that the 50.4% mark was the highpoint, last hit in 1993. Clearly, some law schools are doing better than others in terms of representation of women and minorities. Catalyst also reported that people of color made up only 21.9% of law school students in 2008-2009, a percentage that continues to rise on average but needs to be improved at many institutions nationwide. The pipeline theory hasn’t proven true, and, given the same rates of change we’ve seen in law schools and firms, Catalyst estimates that it will take more than a lifetime – for a woman born in 2010! – for women lawyers to achieve equality.
So that’s where we are at the dawn of 2011. If you’re feeling like it’s very hard to advance as a woman in the field of law, know you are not alone and you are not imagining the resistance. Obstacles remain and they are very real (and statistically proven). If you don’t see or feel this around you, celebrate that! Appreciate how women have forged that path before you at your firm. What you can do right now is support your fellow women colleagues. Make it your New Year’s Resolution for work. Share your experiences with each other and consider the ways to improve your collective situation. Mentor new women hires and encourage your male colleagues to take advantage of family leave policies. Do what you can where you are. And good luck!