By K Hernan • May 29, 2007•Firms and the Private Sector
I want to take a minute to go against the grain and ask the seemingly counter-intuitive question about women in the profession: Could Big Law be the best place for us to practice law?
I was asked by a new acquaintance last week if I thought I could handle the "negative work environment" of the big firm. My response was that I think I actually prefer a negative work environment. More about that perhaps-unusual answer in a future post. For now, I'd like to explore why I think that big organizations are better for women. The idea for this blog was the new forum post here by a woman who has suffered gender discrimination in the setting of a small firm.
Big organizations (read law firms) may actually be better workplaces for women. With a big firm structure comes relevant company policies on things like discrimination, EEO, sexual harassment, maternity leave, etc. Also big firms come with Human Resources departments that may give some teeth and some human pulse to these policies. Big firms have large and imposing corporate liability policies that come with big premiums. Big firms come with big clients that have expectations about diversity and reputation. Speaking of reputations, big firms are very protective of theirs. It is one thing to work your associates like dogs because that is seen as favorable in some circles. It is quite another thing to have a reputation for gender discrimination or sexual assault in the workplace. In all, the size and formal structure of a big organization may provide some protections for women.
I think, however, that the most important thing that makes big organizations desirable is the human factor, the behavior of the employees when they are members of a large organization. Think about it. We all know that people do things within the privacy of their own home and in front of their own families that they would never do in public. For some this is something silly and harmless like walking around in your underpants. For some it is serious and really deviant like beating up on your spouse. For some it is the free wheeling of racial, ethnic and religious prejudices. In any case, these are things that don't leave the house. You always see these people fully clothed and NOT beating up on their co-workers.
The larger the company the less it is like family. The more co-workers you have, the less control you have over the environment and the less influence you have over the office norms and expectations. The smaller the company, the more it starts to feel like family, especially for those that have been there a long time. Obviously, the boss in a small company will still display restraint and keep his clothes on but he might be less worried about showing other ugly aspects of himself if he feels like he is among family like, his stereotypes, prejudices, and preference for dirty sex jokes.
I, personally, prefer large organizations and I know that clearly based on my experiences. I came to this realization after some personal reflection on why I was so turned off by the gendered environment in the small company. I had to ask myself why I reluctantly took a lot of harassment without saying anything. In the end I realized that I viewed the office as "his family" and didn't want to rock the boat or make things uncomfortable for others, never mind that I was uncomfortable.
However, I have to admit that the large organizations that I have been associated with have been those with strong, moral, and influential group norms that influence the group in positive and not negative ways. Again, I think that some of this is through the necessities of being large in size. Even if the company started off small and with screwed up employee dynamics, more people and more market exposure should change things for the good.
Also, I come to this analysis with a recognition that people have prejudices and carry around the burden of stereotypes. There are people at work that don't think women are valuable to the organization and think that a woman will never be as good an attorney as a man. I don't like that fact and think that anything we can do to change that is energy well spent. Nevertheless, they exist and I just want to keep them from impacting me and my work environment. Finally, I am no sociologist. I've based this on my own experiences. Positive, encouraging, and empowering on the large company side and uncomfortable, limiting, and discrimination-laden on the small company side.
(I'm no big firm recruiter! Like my husband says, "I'm just a squirrel, trying to get a nut.")