Written By: Dorothy L. Tarver
Four issues continue to be the biggest obstacles to a woman’s advancement in the legal profession. They are traditional sexual stereotypes, inflexible workplace structures, inadequate mentoring, and sexual harassment.
Not only the male peers, but clients too, sometimes make assumptions about female lawyers. It is often assumed that a female lawyer cannot manage an aggressive negotiation or complex litigation. Women still face a longstanding double standard and a double bind. They risk criticism for being too “soft” or too “strident”, too “aggressive” or “not aggressive enough.” And what appears assertive in a man often appears abrasive in a woman. A related obstacle is that female attorneys often do not receive the same presumption of competence or commitment as their male colleagues. Part of the reason for such gender disparities may reflect perceptions about the different opportunities for women and men. Most studies find that a male’s chance of becoming a partner in a law firm is two to three times higher than a women’s. Gender disparities are especially pronounced for managing and equity partners, and for women of color. Minority women hold fewer than 1 percent of equity partnerships and their attrition rate after 8 years is virtually 100 percent.
Inflexible Workplace Structures
One of the greatest challenges for female lawyers involves workplace structures that fail to accommodate a balanced life. About two-thirds of surveyed female lawyers report experiencing work/family conflict and most believe that it is the greatest barrier to their advancement. Only a fifth of surveyed female lawyers are satisfied with the allocation of time between work and personal needs, or with their opportunities to pursue the social good. The most obvious failures in workplace structures are excessive hours and resistance to reduced or flexible schedules for female associates. Hourly requirements have increased dramatically over the last two decades, and what has not changed is the number of hours in the day. Unpredictable deadlines, uneven workloads, or frequent travel pose further difficulties for women with family obligations. Most women surveyed believe that any reduction in hours or availability would jeopardize their prospects for advancement. Moreover, working mothers are held to higher standards than working fathers and are often criticized for being insufficiently committed, either as parents or professionals.
Mentoring and Support Networks
An equally persistent problem is inadequate access to informal networks of mentoring, contacts, and client development. Despite recent progress, many men who endorse equal opportunity in principle fall short in practice; they support those who seem most similar in backgrounds, experiences, and values. Male attorneys often report reluctance to mentor women attorneys and prefer the bonding that occurs in all-male social or sporting events; thus creating “boys clubs” or “old boys networks.”
While most all firms now have policies in place concerning sexual harassment, the gap between formal policies and actual practices remains substantial. In the most recent surveys, about half to two-thirds of female lawyers reported experiencing or observing sexual harassment. Almost three-quarters of female lawyers thought harassment was a problem in their workplace. It is a problem for which women pay a substantial and disproportionate price. Women account for about 90 per-cent of reported complaints, and many experience both economic and psychological injuries, such as loss of employment opportunities, unwanted transfers, anxiety, depression, and other stress-related conditions. Many women justifiably fear ridicule or retaliation. Those who complain are often subject to informal blacklisting and loss of career advancement.
Changing these patterns is no small challenge. However, at a time when half of law school graduates are women, law firms cannot afford structures that disadvantage so much of the legal talent pool. To make significant progress, equal opportunity for women needs to be seen as an economic as well as moral issue, and treated as a bottom-line priority.