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.