It's very well known and often bragged about that over 50% of law school graduates are women. So what's the problem with women in the legal profession?
The problem reported last week is that while women represent over 50% of those graduating from law school, they made up only 28% of those granted partnership at the 85 major law U.S. law firms according to a new study published by the Project for Attorney Retention at the Hastings College of Law.
The disparity between the number of female law school graduates and female partners is quite remarkable. And it's not because the women are less intelligent or capable than their male counterparts. As cynical as I may be, I don't think anyone would even argue that.
While few want to come out and accuse the legal profession of gender discrimination, I have no problem doing so. (Of course, not every firm, not every lawyer) It's all over the legal profession -- wage discrimination, lack of promotional opportunity, sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, stereotyping, including a particularly horrible record for women of color. It's all there, and it occurs for many reasons.
We all know that many law firms have a hard time accommodating the needs of working wives and mothers. While firms are certainly much better than they were twenty-five or thirty years ago about flexible schedules and part-time work, they still have a long way to go.
The Amercian Bar Association's (ABA) Commission on Women in the Profession studies this subject and published it's findings in 1988, 1995, and 2003. The contents are neither encouraging nor surprising. The last report notes:
Current data indicates that more and more firms are allowing part-time schedules, but women testifying at the the 2003 hearings still reported that choosing the part-time option posed professional risks. A partner at a large national law firm reported a consensus at her firm that the part-time policy is simply 'words on a piece of paper''. . .[Y]our commitment to the firm is still questioned once you have decided to go on a reduced hours schedule.
In addition, women who have obligations to their families are eliminated from mentoring and networking opportunities with clients. Often times even single women are eliminated from these events -- the golf game, the baseball game, the hunting trip -- simply because they are women. If you don't meet and interact with the clients, you don't get the business. If you don't get the business, you don't produce the revenue and you don't make partner. It's really pretty straightforward.
There's also the plain old fashioned gender bias that is rampant in law firms. Many men believe that women should be home with their children and not working at all or don't have the appropriate composition to practice law. The fact that these views are held by lawyers, and that this attitude is illegal when acted upon in the workplace, does not seem to prevent many partners from discriminating against the women in their firms in a variety of ways.
The latest ABA report on this subject included the following:
The 1995 report noted that '[b]oth men and women report that women lawyers are viewed as insufficiently aggressive, uncomfortably forthright, too emotional, or not as serious as men about their careers. When women opt for family leave or report sexual harassment, these stereotypes are reinforced.'
In 2003, there was evidence that those stereotypes have not dissipated .....
One can hardly go a week without reading an article about a law firm being sued for or settling, or losing some kind of discrimination lawsuit. It's not just because law firms are easy targets. They really do discriminate against their lawyers at an extraordinary rate.
The fact is that many women simply leave the profession and won't sue. I have had dozens of calls through the years from women who were discriminated against and sexually harassed at their firms. Without exception, each decided not to sue for fear that they would never find another job.
So while it's better than it was, we are not nearly where we should be in our profession in terms of providing equal opportunity in the workplace. Wouldn't it be nice if we were at the forefront, instead of the rear, on this issue?