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What Women Lawyers Gain From Women-Only Groups

A recent cover story in Canadian Lawyer “The Case for Ladies Only” questioned the need in 2014 for women lawyers to form organizations or hold events that are for women only. Ignoring the outdated use of the word “ladies” (which in itself shows the need to educate the profession on how women should be treated) the article raises the question about what is the best way to achieve gender parity.  

Given that women’s participation in the profession (thirty-seven percent) is still decades away from equaling that of men and that women have stalled at around twenty percent of partners (17% for equity and 23% for income partners) for many years now, it is clear that women still have a very long way to go to mirror the gender equality that law schools have enjoyed for over twenty years.

There are many advantages for any group that has a shared unique experience – whether they are aboriginal lawyers, rural lawyers or gay lawyers – to get together to learn from their common experience, support each other and leverage their diverse skills. In order to advance however, any unique group must also engage with the larger, dominant group for their support and acceptance.

There are studies too numerous to mention that show that groups with diverse members (whether these are diverse cultures, races, religions, gender or sexual orientation) make better decisions due to their diversity of perspectives. However, in order to engage men in gender discussions, men must see a personal and professional benefit to doing so.

It is not just men who sometimes need convincing. Some women lawyers oppose joining all women groups, as they believe this may single themselves out as “trouble-makers” in firms where there is little to no understanding or support for women’s issues. Other women have been successful without the need for any support from other women so see no value in supporting women lawyer associations. They also believe they can learn as much or more from successful men as successful women even where the men have very different experiences both professionally and personally than women.

Younger women law graduates are often surprised when they face challenges for which their gender equal university experience did not prepare them. They presume that because their law school class was fifty percent (or more) women and they obtained articling positions and were hired back as first year associates in equal numbers to their male colleagues, that this trend will continue.

However, by their fifth year of call, more than double the number of women as men will have left private practice for government or in-house positions or left the law entirely. Very few of the women who stay in private practice will become partners. This is a loss not just for these women but also for their law firms and clients.

So what can women-only organizations offer women that other organizations cannot?

Women lawyers face the following ten unique challenges that are either never or rarely faced by male lawyers.

  1. Returning from lengthy maternity leaves and having to rebuild client relations and work. (While paternal leave is slowly becoming more common in law firms it is still very rare and typically only a few weeks in duration.)
  2. Developing business (especially corporate business) in what is still a male dominated business world. (This is not the case in all areas of law such as family law or wills and estates where the non-corporate clients are both male and female.)
  3. Managing the time and energy demands of childcare, elder care and the majority of the domestic responsibilities while running a practice. (Statistics show that women still perform the majority of family and household jobs.)
  4. Finding mentors and especially, a sponsor. Women lawyers have more difficulty finding mentors and sponsors partly because men often gravitate to working with younger male associates whose challenges they relate to more easily. As men outnumber women lawyers especially amongst partners, women have greater challenges finding sponsors. Also many senior male partners can be reluctant to sponsor a female associate if they believe she may leave the practice.
  5. Sexual harassment both in the workplace and from clients. While men can also face harassment, the various law societies’ annual reports state that sexual harassment continues to be the number one concern reported by members and especially their female members.
  6.  Women hold many internal beliefs about what is correct behavior gained from how they were raised as girls. This behavior and other internal barriers are identified in Sheryl Sandberg’s current bestseller “Lean In”. Behavior such as leading meetings by asking more questions and seeking in-put from the group more than men typically do, may lead men to believe that a woman is not a strong leader. The woman may simply believe this is both a respectful and better way to resolve issues. Other internal barriers include women feeling like imposters even when successful or not marketing themselves well as this feels like boasting, are all issues that typically women feel more strongly than men.
  7. Exclusion from informal networks at work. This is similar to the challenges around finding sponsors. Socializing with colleagues often forms around same gender conversations and activities.
  8. Unconscious biases held by men (and sometimes by senior women) about women as leaders or rainmakers or women’s ability to practice law.
  9. The culture of law firms. As law firms are primarily led by men, many women do not understand the politics of a firm. This lack of understanding holds women back from advancing into partnership. While male partners can help here, often they are not aware how differently women perceive the workplace culture.
  10. Fewer senior female role models. Women’s groups can provide role models of everything from becoming a partner while also being a mother to becoming a successful rainmaker in a male dominated client industry.

Each of these issues is one where women benefit from hearing the experiences of other women who overcame similar challenges. All-women groups are also places where a woman may feel more comfortable raising and discussing issues to which they would not readily admit experiencing if men were present. Not only are some issues highly personal (most men do not want to hear about the challenges of continuing to breast-feed when you return to work) while others (such as the law firm culture) are difficult to raise without sounding like a criticism of how the firm is run.

As men hold eighty percent of partnership positions, women will not achieve gender parity in law firms and especially not at the partnership table or in other leadership positions, without engaging men in the challenges facing women. Women can learn from their male colleagues and mentors how to navigate the politics of a firm, how to adapt business development ideas to their needs and how to find partner sponsors, amongst many other issues. However, learning from men is only half the equation.

There will likely always be a need for women-only organizations simply because the experience of growing up as male or female will produce different perspectives on life. Western society has come a long ways in providing opportunities to women that were once only available to men. The challenge today is to see women advance equally into leadership positions. While men and women have much they can teach each other, there is also a place for women to support and mentor other women on the road to equality.

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Comments

  1. Could someone clarify what a “sponsor” is?

  2. A sponsor is an influential member within the firm or organization who is willing to speak on your behalf, promote you within the firm/org and also give you opportunities to work on large files or major litigation. They differ from a mentor, who is there as a springboard for ideas and to support you in your career. I wrote about the need for sponsors in my article about women in senior leadership positions for the CBA. http://www.nationalmagazine.ca/Articles/Sept-Oct-2013/Women-in-the-boardroom.aspx

  3. New Grad: here is a somewhat recent G&M article on “why you need a career sponsor”:

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/careers/management/why-you-need-a-career-sponsor/article14643831/

  4. Well said! Women-only groups are of benefit to everyone, not just women.

  5. Linda,

    A great commentary. Womens’ support organizations are important; without these, each woman may feel that what she is dealing with does not happen to anyone else.

    That said, the success of women’s support organizations depends on women, especially senior women, being genuine about what their challenges have been, and listening to the current experience of more junior lawyers. Often, the wisdom that senior women feel comfortable to pass on is limited to “hire a nanny or two” or “get a strong sponsor”. In and of itself, this will not make women’s organizations useful.

    Thank you.

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