A conversation I often have with partners (both male and female) goes like this. The partner tells me, “We bend over backwards to help our women associates by accommodating lengthy maternity leaves; putting on programs to help them develop business; holding events for potential female clients and allow some women to work reduced hours. But it makes no difference – the women lawyers still leave.”
These partners are correct. Despite these programs, the women lawyers still leave. They leave because these programs do not address the deeper reasons why women leave private practice either voluntarily or are dismissed by firms who do not see many women as potential partners. The deeper reasons require an understanding of the gender bias inherent both in law firm structures and in the often, unconscious attitudes of senior lawyers.
This bias can be held by women as well as by men. Since women have had to adapt to a largely male workplace in order to succeed, many women have unconsciously adopted similar attitudes as their male colleagues. Most partners feel no conscious discrimination against women. They abhor clearly biased practices such as sexual harassment or a reluctance to hire female articling students or associates.
However, bias against any group whether it is women or people from a different cultural background or sexual orientation is often unconscious and requires educating ourselves about our hidden beliefs and how this belief shows up in our actions. If you wish to test yourself for bias through implicit associations, try the fascinating tests for gender associations and other sorts of unconscious associations with various groups at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/
An excellent discussion of these systemic biases can be found in an article by the prolific writer Ida Abbott (www.idaabbott.com/publications/articles) titled “How Political Dynamics Undermine Gender Balance in Law Firm Leadership and What Your Firm Must Do About It.”
To cite but one example from Abbott’s article many people see the defining qualities of women leaders as “taking care” behaviors while male defining qualities are seen as “taking charge” behaviors. “Taking care” includes being friendly, sensitive and compassionate and having strong interpersonal skills. “Taking charge” characteristics include being ambitious, assertive, competitive and action-oriented. The “taking charge” male characteristics are usually associated with leadership. While men are perceived as “natural” leaders when women demonstrate these same “taking charge” characteristics they are not seen as natural leaders but as harsh, aggressive and uncaring. The women’s behavior contradicts people’s expectations of how women should behave.
Abbott goes on to identify how unconscious attitudes about how women should behave influences work assignments, compensation programs, business development practices, leadership opportunities and succession planning. Her solution is for partners to educate themselves about their unconscious associations, often negative in relation to women, and then put in place programs and systems that will eliminate these attitudes.
Getting law firms to implement such strategies is challenging. While law firms can hire business consultants knowledgeable about the elimination of negative gender associations, lawyers can be skeptical of outsiders imposing corporate practices that may limit partners’ control of the firm. However, consultants are only advisors not decision makers. They can help lawyers see that their assumptions about women lawyers may be entirely incorrect and are in fact, inhibiting the firm from moving forward.
There are many studies showing that the more gender diversity on boards, amongst managers and on work teams – the better the results are for the bottom line and for clients. As our clients are increasingly diverse and the world demands solutions to more complex problems, we need to capitalize on the different strengths that women bring to the table. When those strengths look like weaknesses to partners who are familiar with only one way of behaving and thinking, the firm loses this opportunity for growth. It also loses intelligent women who can help firms adapt to an increasingly complex world.
Unlike leaders at larger corporations, partners are rarely exposed to management training that includes organizational behavior and development or employee engagement. Lawyers are trained in the law not management practices. In order to retain more women, partners must first educate themselves about their own unconscious attitudes. Next, they must examine what successful corporations are doing to change their compensation programs, succession planning, business development practices, management structures and training and mentoring programs to learn how these business practices can be adapted to law firms.
Programs like those described at the beginning of this column will get women in the door and are valuable for that reason. But however well meaning these programs are, the women lawyers will still leave. Einstein said “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”. When we open our minds to a new way of thinking about how women can contribute to a firm’s success, we also open the door to stronger firms better positioned to address the future needs of clients. A host of positive programs and models exist. In a future column, I will examine programs that can help law firms address these issues.