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The Gender Gap: Men Blame the System, Women Blame Themselves

Vivia Chen

January 8, 2013

© Maridav - Fotolia.comI'm feeling a bit sheepish about writing yet another dissection on why women lag behind men in their careers. Often, I think the problem has been overanalyzed and that I'm just adding to the stockpile of laments.

So many women's voices on the subject—no wonder the exercise feels insular. But where's the input from men?

According to gender consultant Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, men—particularly those in power—might be more enlightened than women think. The catch is that these men are seldom enlisted for the cause. Here's how she describes her findings in the Harvard Business Review Blog:

"We think that the top three obstacles to better gender balance are: Management mind-set, leadership criteria, and career management processes," concluded the group of men during last week's leadership team meeting, after an animated debate.

Then I asked the much smaller group of women who had been enthusiastically discussing the topic in a corner of the room to present their analysis. "Self-criticism, lack of confidence, and self-selection out of promotion pools" was how they explained the dearth of women in the room—and on this team.

As one of the participants sums up the result: "The men blamed the system, the women are blaming themselves!" 

The self-flagellation probably doesn't surprise many women. After all, it's become almost a cliché that women tend to blame themselves for not succeeding. The real jolt is that the men are cutting women more slack than they allow themselves.

The lesson from the exercise, writes Wittenberg-Cox, is "that women are not always the best or only source to understanding the causes of gender imbalances—nor designing solutions to eradicate them." The mistake, she adds, is that "we are usually asking the wrong people (only women) the wrong questions ("what do women want?")," rather than enlisting the opinions of those (men) in power who "are the ones best able to understand and adapt their systems."

So far, though, women almost exclusively control the program, which is one reason, says Wittenberg-Cox, "so many 'empowering women' initiatives have failed." In fact, she suggests that women are wasting precious time by investing so much on these solipsistic efforts:

Every women's network, every additional dollar spent in coaching and mentoring women, every women's conference is just another way of avoiding the real issues and adding another whip to blame the ladies.

Sounds harsh, doesn't it? Look, I'm a believer in the feminine perspective—that "until you've walked in my Manolos, you don't know what it's like" view. I'm also a sucker for that female bonding stuff, because I actually like those cocktail-fueled events. But let's not kid ourselves—they are what they are. Operating in an echo chamber, delightful as it might be, isn't getting us anywhere. 

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? Email chief blogger Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. 

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Honestly...my comment may not be welcome here but no matter how hard a woman tries she will fail in the end when it comes to taking on male stereotypical roles. Your bodies are not built for the stress. Yes you can adapt but something will be sacrificed.

I'm not able to add much to the larger debate, but I do know that on the micro-level, money talks. Rather than picking over the cultural differences between men and women, I prefer to take advantage of them. Women lawyers often connect better with women clients of a similar age, disposition, sensibility, and sensitivity. I'm not going to discourage that, but instead (1) show my support for my female colleague, or (2) stay the hell out of the way and let her bring in the work. They can talk to each other in cocktail-fueled echo chambers all day if it translates into business, and that's the best way for anyone to advance, male or female.

The notion that large swaths of women don't blame men for anything and everything is belied by every column in the history of The Careerist, and most of the female comments.

People who are being analyzed say what they think they should say - hence the conclusions reported herein. It doesn't mean that they meant what they said.

Chaton's comment here is particularly revealing - she wants men to pay for her drinks. Fine, but that mentality exactly one of the reasons why men should make more money than women - we need it to spend on you.

I agree with Vivia’s post – but not to give up the women’s initiatives altogether. I advocate inviting men and clients to some of them so that business development and client relations becomes something not just talked about at the meetings but concrete action is taken. I also believe that men and women on different levels of status and generational worldviews be included, not just partners. All stakeholders need to be in the room, in on the discussion and observing, not making unseen and untested assumptions.

Here are 2 articles I have written on the subject: How to Use the Intersection of Generations and Gender to Raise the Return for Everyone, and Cross-Generational Conversation With The Elephants In The Room

Wittenberg-Cox may be on to something. Joseph Small, partner in charge of Fulbright's DC office, leads the most progressive program to promote women that I'm aware of. I heard him speak at a Ms. JD conference this fall. He understands the issues, has the power to implement a program and, in fact, has done it. Kudos to Joe and Fulbright!

"Operating in an echo chamber, delightful as it might be, isn't getting us anywhere." Your comment is so accurate. Law firms continue to have very high attrition rates for women, especially women of color. And far too many professional women exit the workforce after having children because the workforce is fairly intolerant to mothers. Those who remain employed, either out of desire or necessity, suffer through it and complain to the spouses, friends and other women, and have for some time. However, change has come at a snail's pace. I welcome involving men in the conversation. Perhaps we'll experience change somewhat faster. Or at least get them to pay for the drinks at the "cocktail-fueled events"... That being said, I disagree that dollars spent on developing women and hosting conferences are wasted. It's just that we need to do that AND more.

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About The Careerist

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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