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Law's Macho Mystique

Vivia Chen

December 13, 2012

Cigar © David Stuart_FotoliaAre some careers perceived to be so male-dominated that women are avoiding them?

That seems like a ridiculously quaint question. But the answer is yes, according to research by The Wharton School and McGill University.

The study, which analyzed data of 1,255 male and female graduates of elite MBA programs, finds that women tend to shy away from certain high-paying Wall Street jobs, because they regard them as vats of testosterone. Here's how  Knowledge@Wharton describes this "gender segregation":

The researchers' main finding was that women were significantly less likely to apply to Wall Street–type finance jobs, somewhat less likely to apply to consulting jobs, and more likely to apply to jobs in general management, most notably internal finance and marketing.

I know, I know—you're about to tell me that Big Law doesn't have that problem. At the junior level, at least, women seem to flock eagerly to all types of large-firm practices.

But here's the troubling new trend: Women are starting to thin out at the associate ranks too. According to NALP's newly released study, women associate rates went from 45.66 percent in 2009 to 45.05 percent in 2012. The change has been small but steady for the last three years. That's worrisome because precious few women end up staying in law firms in the long run. (As I've written ad nauseam, women drop out of firms at much higher rates than men, and few rise to the level of equity partner.)

So even before we get close to fixing that leaky pipeline mess, it looks like we might be already losing the pipeline.

I hope that the declining rate of female associates is just a fluke. It seems, though, that an increasing number of women aren't buying the initial seductions of Big Law—the money, glamour, prestige. Setting an attractive bait for female applicants at the entry level isn't addressing the underlying problems, according to Matthew Bidwell, one of the authors in the Wharton/McGill study. He tells Knowledge@Wharton:

It’s not just a question of sticking more women in the company brochures, or having more women be part of the company’s on-campus recruiting. It’s a question of trying to change the culture, job perceptions, and kinds of behavior that people exhibit.

Ah, those sticky, icky issues: culture, perception, and behavior. Easy fix, right?

Frankly, I don't believe Big Law has a macho image. (Is machismo ever associated with lawyers anyway?) But many women do see it as a boys' club—and that's enough to drive some of them away.

Hat tip: The Glass Hammer.



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In some areas, women predominate. And I'm not just talking about those who represent divorcees.
Medical malpractice has always attracted nurses who get law degrees (not to mention, offered them career advancement). Now, most women in that field are not women, but simply people who prefer the intellectual work and civilized interactions; unlike most tort work there's little posturing, bluster, gross-out or sheer repetition. Medicine is subtle, intellectual and (at least when a lot is at stake) rigorous - doctors in trouble insist on no less.
I'm not a woman, but I can imagine that many women want what I want - less scutwork, fewer blowhards, and more respect for quality.

One additional view of the 2012 NALP numbers is that minority women associates reported their highest % since NALP started tracking them as a distinct group in 2006. Minority women associate % also trended back up (incrementally) in the period when overall women associate % dropped.

When NALP says "women associates" are steadily declining, it's probably more accurate to say representation of Caucasian women associates are steadily declining. The Law School Admissions Council recently released a trend report on LSAT test takers. Caucasian women have declined each year since 2006 as a % of LSAT takers while the % of Afr. American, Hispanic and Asian women either trended upward or stayed flat in the same period. Regardless, partnership rates remain dismal for women in general and women of color in particular.

You make a good distinction between "macho" and "boys' club." By and large, male lawyers aren't macho although I suspect the desire to be is often behind sexual harassment. However, many law firms are run like old boys' clubs that tilt the playing field in favor of male associates. Unless and until the culture of Big Law changes, all but the most ambitious and masochistic women should steer clear.

As is often the case, your assessment of how gender differences manifest themselves in the workplace is off base. Being a lawyer is not and will never be fun, exciting or glamorous. Success in the legal profession requires serious drudgery. Women still have options that men don't. How some men can be a "stay at home Dads" is inexplicable to the majority of men. Machismo on Wall Street and in Big Law is not macho in the conventional sense. It's more about doing or sacrtificing ANYTHING to get the job done. Women are not (and yes I am resorting to a gender stereotype) as ego driven as men. They don't need to prove to the world they have the biggest wallet, brain or d---. There are far too many lawyers. And the legal professions ability to create new, unnecessary functions for those excess lawyers has run its course. Achieving big time success in Big Law or on Wall Street has always been a challenge, Now a days that challenge is even greater. Only the truly masochistic, those whose need to succeeed outstrips the more rationale desire to actually enjoy life, will try to climb that sisyphean mountain. The fact less women are pursuing big law just goes to show women as a group are smarter than men. And that emotional intelligence is what will forever prevent them from "rising to the level of equity partner." While you find that a lamentable fact I think it is cuase for celebration!!!

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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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