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The Key to Closing the Gender Gap

Vivia Chen

June 4, 2012

Out_of_Box_© Helder Almeida-iStockphotoSorry I dumped those bleak McKinsey & Company reports on women on you last week—you know, the ones that find that women in the United States and Europe are stuck in the mid-management box. Both reports poured cold water on all those wonderful mentoring programs and women's initiatives, saying what we've been suspecting—that they aren't making much of a dent in women's progress.

As you know, I'm prone to be negative when I read those type of reports, but thankfully, there are those who strike a more positive note. Harvard Business School professor Herminia Ibarra, for one, thinks the solution is to redistribute women's focus at work. Instead of placing so much weight on mentoring, Ibarra says, it's time for women to focus on the assignments they take on.

In the Harvard Business Review blog, Ibarra proposes adopting "the sacrosanct 70-20-10 rule, by which 70 percent of a manager's learning and development should come from on-the-job learning through stretch assignments, with only 20 percent and 10 percent coming from mentoring and classroom learning, respectively."

Of course, following this formula requires vigilance. It "means focusing on the company's appointment process and succession planning," writes Ibarra. Moreover, it involves identifying "pivotal roles" or assignments that are "essential" to the development of a top executive.

I think Ibarra is on to something. By putting the priorities in numerical terms, she's highlighting what should be obvious—which is to say, it's the assignment, stupid! As anyone who's been at a law firm can attest, it's not just a matter of how many hours you log that gets you the brass ring. Don't we all know some poor drone with zero partnership prospects who regularly bills 2,800 hours a year on scut work?

Brande Stellings, a vice president at Catalyst, says Ibarra is "spot on" in focusing on assignments as the key to closing the gender gap in the workplace. "This is definitely true in law firms, where it matters a lot which clients you work for and what matters you work on and for which partners," says Stellings. "Firms should be tracking who gets these plum assignments—and be open to thinking about whether some of the 'unusual suspects' are getting key opportunities."

So where does this put mentoring and those women initiatives? I don't think anyone is advocating throwing it all out the window. But they should be substantive.

Ibarra argues that the 70-20-10 rule makes mentoring more than a " 'feel good' exercise; it is a means for identifying and providing what a talented person needs to get into one of the jobs and do well there." Stellings adds: "Women don’t always get the key assignments. . . . Mentors and sponsors can help here: by championing women for stretch assignments, by dismantling the idea that women are risky, by coaching their protégés when they do get that stretch assignment."

In other words, mentors and sponsors can help. Just don't look to them as your knight in shining armor.

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I am the owner of Zanes Law in Arizona. We are actually one of the largest injury firms in the state. This is important because it would have been impossible for me to have built my firm without all of the help that I have had from my team, many of whom are women. I have found that where male attorneys are very single focused, the women attorneys who I work with are very good at multitasking. This makes them the ideal point person on many things that men don't do as well. For this reason, I have found that my best managing attorneys have been women. They have been much more in tune with firm culture, people's needs, and the business end of the firm. I believe that it is more about identifying the individual strengths of my team and then using those strengths to best benefit the business and our clients. Simply put, my experience is that women are much better at some things then men, and I truly believe that our success is directly related to identifying that in our women attorneys and then putting them in the right position so that they succeed. Very little mentoring needed! We also try to do the same with all of our other employees.

Hi, Byrl! Thank you for appearing here. I have been so interested these past days how and what do personal injury lawyers do. Can you manage to tell me, that's if you won't mind at all.

Thank you for finally printing an article that to me is the key issue with my advancement as a female associate at my law firm. It does not matter how hard I am willing to work or that I do not have family obligations demanding my attention. I am not going to advance in law unless I get some experience on the plum assignments. The social politics of how work is distributed is difficult, painful and frustrating yet rarely addressed by commentators.


Yes, I agree, it is all about money. I was trying to explain WHY the money still gravitates toward men.

The money moves from male clients to male partners, and until the perception of women changes, it always will.

To Jane: IMHO, it is not about perception, it is about money. When women make the rain and bring in the bucks they get the power and move out of that bottom half. The problem is that the money still tends to gravitate toward the men in the private sector and that keeps women in Big Law marginalized. That is why there are so many women attorneys at DOJ, at SES government positions, and as judges. And some in-house. Places with a sure paycheck. I also want to say that what happens in a PI firm is not a paradigm for what happens in Big Law.

I thought mentoring WAS focused on assignments. That's how I've always done it. Diversity programs are a joke, window dressing to fool law school applicants, but on-the-job mentoring is key.

The problem is, and I speak as a law firm partner, most of the female partners doing the mentoring are not themselves major influencers in their firms. The percentages of female equity partners has barely moved in 10 years or more and those who are made up congregate in the bottom half of their partnership ranks.

Bias is embedded in the culture of the legal profession. The essential obstacle that halts a woman's progress up the ladder is both more complicated and simpler than overt discrimination. It is this - men are in charge because men are in charge. The partners, the clients, the banks and corporates, the judicial system, all are overwhelmingly male. Women are 'the other', we stand out, we are a 'minority', even when we are not.

As long as we are perceived in this way, we will not receive equal consideration for advancement, our very best will be tokens, our better and equally good will be passed over. I cannot see that ever changing by organic growth.

Until these perceptions change, achieving the critical mass required to change perceptions will be impossible. The only solution is political action, quotas, positive discrimination. It's ugly and nobody wants it, but it is the ONLY way to get women in power in sufficient numbers to effect real change.

Any woman that looks around them as they progress, or don't progress, at their firms, must surely come to this conclusion.

This article sets up some kind of binary comparison between mentoring v. focusing on assignments that doesn't take into account the wide range of issues that women in the law face. Sure, focus more on the assignments than mentoring because the probabilities are that you get nowhere without good work. But also, the important point about women lawyers annd the law that McKinsey reports perhaps highlight is that you can focus on assignments and do a great job and still get left behind because you didn't have a mentor, or you didn't appear enough of a leader and so on. So what's the point of this article? One of the most salient points in the law is you could focus on your assignments and still not get assessed the same way because of gender issues.

I'm a personal injury lawyer in Phoenix. My law firm is staffed with the brightest legal minds -- and they all happen to be women.

I'm a personal injury lawyer in Phoenix. My law firm is staffed with the brightest legal minds -- and they all happen to be women.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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