6 Steps to Success for Promoting Women Lawyers

I’ve been meaning to write about women lawyers in the workplace for over a year now. I hesitated for a number of reasons. I see a lot written about the gender gap in pay and promotion. You can’t deny that it exists, but I get tired of hearing the same old thing. And much of it comes across as complaining. To me there is little point in highlighting a problem without offering some solutions. Or at least starting a discussion about how we can create solutions.

 

The Current State of Women Lawyers in the Workplace

I will admit at this point in my career since I work for myself, I don’t have to be concerned with unequal pay or lack of promotional opportunities. However, as a woman who spent a decade in practice, I remember the issues like it was yesterday. Working as a litigator in an Am Law 200 firm, I also distinctly felt (both as a woman and an out lesbian) the pressures that go along with trying to thrive in that environment. I didn’t do enough to help myself professionally, and I know many women don’t.  Now I’m in contact with women lawyers daily who navigate some of the same issues I dealt with and are trying to get the most out of their careers. I also speak with women lawyers (particularly millennials) who refuse to recognize that they might be being treated differently than their male peers. Those of us who have been around (decades) longer, understand that it’s gotten better. But that it’s a mistake to think that women are free from the concerns that have long pre-occupied professional women.

So first an acknowledgement of the bad news about where we are today. Women lawyers ask themselves whether striving to ascend to the partnership ranks is worth it, and some conclude it is not. Women lawyers in legal departments also have challenges being fairly represented, and female CLOs understand that this is an issue that needs to be addressed. Allegations of gender discrimination are alive and well in Big Law. Women lawyers work more and seem to get paid less. They also drop out of the workforce for a multitude of reasons. One reason we don’t want to complain too much is that we don’t want to risk ticking off men or making them uncomfortable by being seen as too powerful, bitchy or complaining.

Most of these issues have been or are being discussed. One challenge that does not get discussed much is women’s inability to promote one another, which I’ve written about elsewhere. Women attorneys should be supporting more women in leadership positions in law firms and on in-house legal teams. As much as some female lawyers do a great job of mentoring and supporting women associates, many others do not. And we all know who they tend to be. Many of them worked like crazy in a male-dominated environment at a time when there were few women and they feel they need to maintain their status to the exclusion of others. They would just as soon keep their stiletto heel on top of another women’s head than give her a helping hand up.

 

6 Steps to Success for Promoting Women Lawyers

I’d like to suggest that women lawyers take action that will move us forward in changing the environment around us, thinking more critically about goals, and creating a recipe for success for women in law.

  1. Objectively review your women’s initiatives – As lawyers, we should critically reflect on why we haven’t come as far in eradicating wage and promotion gaps. What are the goals of your women’s initiatives? They should be clear and concise. Too often, they are not concrete enough to motivate women to regularly attend meetings or events. Some women also are afraid to be identified with women’s initiatives because it makes the male attorneys feel uncomfortable. Really? Women attorneys must ask themselves if going along to get along has gotten them much so far. It’s not nearly enough to have a forum where women can discuss the difficulties of trying to do it all. Specific goals need to be set and outcomes tracked over time.
  2. Honestly assess how women fare in the environment – This is more of a culture assessment. Take a good, hard look at how women lawyers do at your firm or in your legal department. How are they viewed by others? Is the climate permissive of manipulating women’s success stories to be couched in stereotypes? Does the successful, driving female partner get tagged with descriptions that connote an emasculating personality? By contrast, it’s not uncommon in some environments to have a female attorney’s success explained by a male partner having taken her under his wing. It’s not so much about what actually occurred as it is perception. These types of views tend to persist and take on a life of their own in certain environments. They say more about a culture that undervalues women’s achievements than anything else.
  3. Use strategies to advance women attorneys – What are female attorneys’ retention and promotion rates?   It is necessary to have management behind women’s initiatives, but it will only take you so far. Create concrete strategies to add women in management and take part in the most powerful committees in the firm. This will change the substance of how those committees operate. It’s been shown that the more women on the compensation committee, the less wage disparities exist. What types of work are women attorneys doing in your legal department? Is it high value or repeatable, commodity work? Are there more women paralegals in your legal department than women lawyers?
  4. Support each other – It is absolutely vital that women stick together. Men don’t have to like each other to support one another. Why do women? Let’s start breaking down the cultural cattiness many women were raised with. It’s good to be high-minded, but not when it keeps us down as a whole. Respect other women’s choices and career path even if it’s not the same as your own. Some women will choose to work flex-time, while it won’t be right for others. Support efforts to create more pathways to success for women who carry the bulk of child-care responsibilities in their families. More firms are enhancing their reputations by creating these kinds of arrangements. Everyone benefits when it is recognized that women are excellent multi-taskers and they should be viewed as key players.
  5. Create a critical mass –The more women who take part in management and have a say in what takes place in the environment, the more likely it is to change. A lot has been written recently about women in technology who experience some of these same problems. There’s a growing eco-system to support women entrepreneurs and women-owned businesses. There’s plenty of room for multiple women to be successful, and to not just accept the one-woman-in-the-room phenomenon. More and more studies are showing that greater numbers of women in leadership positions correlates with stronger profits.
  6. Engage the men in your life – Career-driven women should not have to apologize for their choices. Women balance because they have to. But men should balance as well. More and more, men enjoy options that are created due to their partner’s success. Since the 2008 recession, I’ve seen many women in attorney couples who have fared better in their careers than their husbands. If couples are willing to look objectively at who has the more expedient route to success, then they can maximize their time and skills to provide for family and create a fulfilling career/family experience. For whatever negative consequences the downturn created, one positive result seems to have been that more women have successfully ascended the ladder. Accepting that it could be either person in the marriage or relationship who is the main breadwinner means we’ve achieved a new-found flexibility that’s no longer tied to gender.

There are many paths to change and success for women lawyers. We need to mold the environment around us by taking action. While formal initiatives are useful, Informal networks and power structures are often more effective because they lack the psychological baggage and resentment that often come with management initiatives. Most importantly, it’s everyone’s job to create an environment that supports women’s success, so each of us should be looking to do just that on a daily basis.

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