Did the recession hurt law firm diversity?

Carol Williams reports in the Los Angeles Times that 2010 marked the first year since the 1990s that the proportion of women and minorities at law firms actually decreased.  The decline is likely because those most vulnerable to lose their jobs during recent law firm "downsizing" were younger associates, and younger associates tended to reflect more diverse hiring practices.  Even though the statistical drop wasn't astronomical (less than one percentage point), fewer numbers of women and minorities in the pipeline could still affect diversity in the longterm when women and minorities are less represented among those being considered for partnership within law firms.

This finding is particularly interesting since the recession affected women in general less than it affected men.  A recent report by Alexis Leondis over at Bloomberg documents that women overall lost fewer jobs than men during the economic downturn (in fact, the current disparity between the unemployment rate of women at 8.9% and that of men at 10.6% is the largest it has ever been). 

The receission hit certain male-dominated sectors (like construction and manufacturing) harder than women-dominated areas (like healthcare and education), which likely explains why women fared better overall.  This bit of luck (if that's what you'd call it) is offset by a Labor Department finding that still, in the first quarter of 2010, women made only 79% of what men did (assuming at least a 35-hour work-week).

Since we all know that partnership is a key step to raking in the money, prestige, and power at law firms, even the slightest setback for women and minorities matters a lot.  In fact, even without this newest obstacle, breaking the glass ceiling wasn't exactly progressing swimmingly.  In a nutshell, women have been graduating from law school in roughly equal numbers as men for the last 20 years (until a recent decline) but still make up only 17% of firm partners.  Hopefully law firms find a way to make sure that the impact of recession-based layoffs on the number of women and minorities doesn't prevent less alarming partnership statistics from emerging in the coming years.

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