March was Women’s History Month, a time in which we celebrate women’s contributions to society and promote female empowerment. Empowering women in the legal profession is more important now than it has ever been. Notwithstanding the strides women have made in society and in the legal profession, women are abandoning the profession at an alarming rate. According to the American Bar Association, women enter the legal profession in equal numbers to men. After, however, a process of reduction occurs so that women make up just 23% of partners and 19% of equity partners.
To put this reality into context, these women subjected themselves to four years of college; three years of law school; months of grueling bar preparation; followed by an expensive multi-day examination, and potentially, hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans to achieve a law license. After surviving this torturous process, many women find careers in the law so dissatisfying that they voluntarily choose to walk away from the professions they worked so hard to achieve. The solution to the problem appears to be two-fold. First, we ought to inquire into what drives the difficulties women face in the legal profession. Secondly, we should evaluate and develop strategies law firms can implement that would alleviate these difficulties.
It is imperative to recognize the importance of women in the professional arena. Women bring a unique worldview to the table, which is useful for companies in the diverse contemporary world. According to Business Insider (2017), companies with strong female leadership generated a Return on Equity of 10.1% versus the 7.4% generated by companies without female leadership. Despite these figures, working women face some of the following challenges: advocating for themselves (which inevitably drives the income gap between men and women); unconscious bias; and, the struggle to achieve a work-life balance.
The Importance of Self-Advocacy
Some of the factors driving women’s inability to self-advocate are perceived lack of opportunity, misunderstanding of their value, and a fear of asking. According to Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever’s book, Women Don’t Ask, women perceive their circumstances as more fixed than they really are, and often underestimate their own control over their circumstances. Further, women are more likely than men to think that working hard and doing a good job alone will lead to success and advancement. This notion may prevent them from asking for the advancement opportunities they deserve.
To mitigate these problems, law firms should organize committees or task forces where women have the support of other women who have dealt with and overcome such situations. It is a well-known fact that you do not get what you do not ask for. It is crucial to train women to ask for advancement opportunities they deserve to maintain their salaries and positions proportionate to those of their male colleagues who may find it easier to make the asks necessary for advancement.
Overcoming Gender Stereotypes
Studies have shown that established gender roles and gender stereotypes lead women to believe they should be warm and nurturing, and a “tough” personal style may be a disadvantage to their persona. According to Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, women are often subject to the double-bind. For example, if they are too assertive, they are considered “bossy,” whereas if they are not assertive enough, they are considered “too nice.” It can be challenging to find a medium, especially for attorneys, whose job is to zealously advocate for their clients. It is important to note, these stereotypes are unconscious, and more often than not, women do not themselves understand how established gender roles are affecting their ability to advocate.
To relieve this struggle, female attorneys should be given the education and tools to properly maneuver the double bind. Women should be trained not to see social behaviors as weakness. According to Andrea Kramer and Alton Harris’ book Breaking Through Bias, smiling can communicate confidence, and an optimistic attitude will help stay committed to the discussion and prevent early settlement. Further, Roger Fisher’s book, Getting to Yes, finds keeping the tone collaborative rather than demanding can result in both sides of the discussion coming out feeling positively impacted. All of these strategies are, of course, much easier said than done, and women need training to learn to effectively utilize these approaches in the workplace.
Overcoming the Myth of Work-Life Balance
Another major issue female attorneys face is difficulty establishing a work-life balance. This struggle is personal to me, as an attorney, wife, and mom. Inevitably, gender stereotypes continue to exist in many modern households. While husbands can help with children, at the end of the day, many moms find, children still demand more attention from their mothers. Regardless of a woman’s career, motherhood is a 24-7 job. Whether she likes it or not, there is not a second in the day when a mother doesn’t have a subconscious thought about the well-being of her children. Similarly, the vast majority of attorney jobs go far beyond the standard eight-to-five job. The legal profession can be high stress and result in debilitating exhaustion and mental drainage. Balancing the two can be challenging.
Women often search for a magical work-life balance and believe finding this balance may alleviate the struggle. The truth is, while work-life balance is an alluring theory, it is really just a myth. Life is like a teeter-totter. Some weeks we have more time for personal lives, while other weeks we require more time for our careers. One of the ways to alleviate this inability to balance is learning to ask for help and/or buy help. There is nothing wrong with accepting a helping hand every once in a while. Lastly, it is crucial to understand a true work-life balance may never exist. Accepting this reality and embracing the chaos which unavoidably trails may be the key to more effectively coping with the reality of the work-life dichotomy.
We must recognize, in the context of history and modern society, women professionals are a social recency. Merely 100 years ago, women did not even have the right to vote. We are slowly digging our roots into the professional world and it is important to adapt to the social changes effectively, while embracing our natures, learning to mesh them with our professions and working around the difficulties which necessarily follow.
How to Keep Women in the Legal Profession
So how do we keep women in the legal profession? Organize processes which give them the tools to overcome the obstacles driving them out. For example, Tyson & Mendes’ Women’s Initiative is an in-house organization where women of all ages, levels of experience and specialties within the firm can come together, get support, share stories and collaborate. This provides a safe forum for women and encourages those who would otherwise be intimidated to ask questions to get much-needed support for any issues they may be dealing with. The Tyson & Mendes Women’s Initiative provides a collective voice for women within the firm and gives women the tools they need to succeed, including training on asking the difficult questions, advocating for themselves, and doing so effectively. We remind each other, we are all in this together, and there should be nothing and no one stopping us from reaching any goals we set for ourselves. “Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.” Ryunosuke Satoro.