The Incredible Men (TIM) Initiative featuring Matthew V. Kerns

Ms. JD is launching The Incredible Men (TIM) Initiative this month to celebrate men who are active champions for women’s advancement in the legal profession. These men not only value equality and diversity in the profession, but earnestly and enthusiastically support women and women’s initiatives. Today we feature the incredible Matthew V. Kerns. We asked him four questions: 

1. Do you think some men are afraid to have an open dialogue about gender equity in the upper echelons of the legal profession? If so, why? What can women do to encourage that conversation?

Yes, many men are afraid to have an open dialogue about gender equity in the upper echelons on the legal profession. A lot of the problem stems from men’s ignorance and insecurity about addressing the issue.  First, men need to admit that gender inequality exists and that their careers have benefitted from it.  After this recognition, men need to understand that gender equity is not exclusively a women’s issue, men are affected as well.  Gender is not a dichotomous set of ideals.  As traditional gender stereotypes, such as caring for children, are broken down, gender roles become more of a spectrum from which men can benefit and lead more balanced and fulfilling lives.

As Ms. JD is doing with the TIM Initiative, involving men in the conversation helps everyone become valued partners in finding a solution. Men should want to be educated about the implicit and explicit prejudices women face in the workplace and understand the benefits of a more equitable profession.  

Many men recognize the disparity in leadership and the benefits of equity; however, when faced with data which shows companies that financially perform in the top 20% had nearly twice the amount of women in leadership roles compared to those in the bottom 20%, men take no action out of fear that doing so will be perceived negatively by their male colleagues or that their ideas and actions will appear patronizing to their female colleagues.

In order for us to move forward the onus of change cannot be placed on women alone. We need to think about gender equity as a human rights issue, not just a women’s issue. Men must take more responsibility for breaking down our patriarchal system and we need to have open-minded, honest, and judgment-free conversations about how everyone can benefit from more women in the upper echelons of the legal profession.

2. Getting men engaged in the discussion about the advancement of women in the profession is critical to our collective success. What are some things men can do to drive us toward a critical mass of women in leadership?

First and foremost, men need to listen.  They need to be open to criticism and be willing to accept that being a woman in the workplace is different than being a man in the workplace. Men need to understand that seemingly simple situations like a female colleague bringing coffee to a male colleague is implicitly different (if not explicitly different) than a male colleague bringing coffee to a female colleague. It is through understanding the barriers that our society has constructed that we can deconstruct the existing inequality. 

With that said, men –especially those in leadership positions – need to take a vested interest in women moving up the career ladder. Sponsorship is an excellent way for men to be involved in driving towards a critical mass of women in leadership roles; however, many men are hesitant to take on the responsibility. Sheryl Sandberg illustrates the point in an interview with the Chicago Tribune that “a man and a man at a bar looks like mentoring. A man and a woman at a bar looks like dating. An older man and a younger woman at a bar — which has to happen because most of the men in power are older men — that looks like something else.” The societal bias against platonic male-female relationships makes it difficult for many men to take on female mentees and for women to take on male mentors (and vice versa). Men and women alike need to address this issue in order to create a climate that will promote the professional relationships which will allow for gender equity in the profession.

Sponsorship alone, however, will not solve the problem.  We must work together to make the workplace more gender neutral.  For example, men should be encouraged to take paternity leave instead of the expectation that women take on the responsibility of child care.  Likewise, women should be included in the firm’s most important cases instead of having male dominated teams. By working towards a holistic restructuring of the profession we can create a more equitable and balanced workplace that benefits all.

3. Why do you think the number of women at the top of the profession have not moved?  (e.g. women have represented 15% of equity partnership at the AmLaw 200 firms for over 10 years, even though women enter the profession at roughly 50% of the associate class during the same time period)  What can we all do to change the numbers?

I think that the number of women at the top of the profession has not moved because the barriers women face in the workplace are not being acknowledged or addressed in a productive manner by those in a position to effectuate change.  As an example, in just the last two months, female attorneys in both Georgia and New York have been denied continuances by judges when pregnancy issues affected their representation.  Moreover, many law firms lack sponsorship programs which assist young attorneys in moving up the career ladder and helps diversify the profession.

Men need to acknowledge and address the profession’s systemic patriarchal indifference to creating gender equity in the workplace and understand how the current system affects our female colleagues both professionally and personally. Men also need to recognize that gender equity is not a zero sum game.  Both men and women can benefit from a more balanced workplace.

Although there are organizations such as, the National Association of Women Lawyers and Ms. JD, which are devoted to promoting the interests and progress of women lawyers and women's legal rights, it was only in 1987 that the ABA created the Commission on Women in the Profession and the National Association of Law Placement has only been tracking data on the representation of women among equity partners for three years. In the history of the profession we are only beginning to recognize that there is an issue; however, it is long past due for us to start taking action.

The numbers will not change just by men encouraging women to advance in the profession. Nor will the numbers change just by women raising the issue. Men and women must both take ownership of the problem and work together to create solutions.  I am thankful that Ms. JD’s TIM initiative is bringing men into the conversation so together we can raise awareness, create solutions, and make the legal profession better for all. 

4. What traits or qualities make you want to sponsor a young attorney?  How can someone make themselves stand out to you?

Traits that would make me want to sponsor a young attorney are someone who is ambitious, responsible, diligent, positive, confident, and committed; however, honesty is the crux of a successful sponsorship because it allows trust to develop between the mentor and mentee. Sponsorship is more than a top-down relationship. It is a robust exchange of ideas; however, the dialogue can only start when both people trust that the other will be open, honest, and non-judgmental about the thoughts presented. When done properly, both the mentee and mentor will grow professionally and personally throughout the relationship.

At this point it can almost go without saying that someone can make themselves stand out to me by being open and honest about their ambitions and goals. Good mentors want to know their mentee’s ambitions in order to best help them reach their goals. It is the mentor’s responsibility to ask the questions, openly listen to the answers, and help when able. It is the mentee’s responsibility to not only answer the questions honestly but also provide feedback on how the mentor can help them achieve their goals.

A successful sponsorship is equitable. Both people bring value to the relationship as they learn and grow from each other. However, an equitable and successful sponsorship begins with honesty, both with oneself and others, and is the quality which makes me want to sponsor a young attorney. 

Matthew V. Kerns is the Assistant Director of Admissions at Savannah Law School in Savannah, GA. While at Savannah Law School, the female representation in the entering classes increased from 50% to 71%, making Savannah Law School one of only a handful of law schools in the country which have a majority female student body.

Matthew feels enormously indebted to all the strong female leaders who have mentored and challenged him to be a better person. Most importantly, to his wife, whose inspiring fortitude is an example of how a life lived in service can create a better world.

Matthew earned his Bachelor of Arts in History from Westminster College in New Wilmington, PA and his Juris Doctor from Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, FL.


Courtney Gabbara

Very insightful, Matt! I absolutely agree that men at the top have to listen and actively invest themselves in the advancement of women. Way to be such a strong advocate!!

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