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Misery Loves Company: Women in Corporate America and Big Law

Vivia Chen

October 6, 2016

Vintage-lady-writing-at-desk-woman-50s-60s-retroFemale lawyers of America, take heart: You are not the only ones stuck in your careers. Your sisters in corporate America are just as screwed.

That's my takeaway from reading McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org's 2016 report about women in the workplace. First covered in the Wall Street Journal, the report examines survey responses from 34,000 employees and data from 132 companies.

For anyone who's familiar with law firm gender statistics, a lot of the findings will sound painfully familiar:

- Women make up only 19 percent of the C-suite, though they represent 46 percent of the entry level positions. (In law firms, women make up about 18 percent of equity partners.)

- Women are less ambitious: Only 40 percent want to be a top executive v. 56 percent of men who do. (Remember how 60 percent of female grads of Harvard Law School's class of '93 have dropped out of the fast track?)

- Women are less confident: Only 43 percent think that being a top executive will significantly improve business, while 51 percent of men think so.

- Women are now asking for promotions and raises as much as men, but those who negotiate are 30 percent more likely to get negative feedback. (Research consistently shows employers don't like women who ask.)

- Despite asking for promotions as often as men, women are less likely to get them.

- Almost all companies give anti-harassment/discrimination training, but only 67 percent offer bias training for hiring and only 56 percent for performance reviews.

If you've been around the block, I doubt any of these findings are surprising. But here's what I find fascinating: The big disconnect between how much effort companies say they're putting into gender equality and the way female employees see that endeavor.

For instance, 78 percent of companies say that gender diversity is a top priority for their CEO (in 2012, only 56 percent of CEOs said so), though fewer than half of their employees think their company is doing anything effective to achieve the goal. In fact, only 24 percent of women employees say that senior leaders communicate the importance of gender diversity (among men, it's 38 percent).

What's more, there's little transparency or accountability on gender issues. The report finds that fewer than a third of companies disclose any gender metrics to employees. Senior leaders are not held accountable for improving gender statistics in 60 percent of the companies in the study, and the vast majority of companies do not set gender pipeline targets. And for all the corporate hype about promoting equality, 27 percents of employees say they ultimately have to fend for themselves to promote gender diversity.

The parallels between Corporate American and Big Law are depressingly striking. In both situations, there's fanfare but not much to show for it.

As we all know, virtually every major firm offers affinity groups, generous parental leaves and  mentoring or sponsorship programs for women. But when it comes to what counts—making female equity partners—the progress is pathetic. 

And law firms are less transparent than ever. The National Association of Women Lawyers has been having a hell of a time getting firms to provide meaningful data about female equity partners and how they are paid. This year, NAWL was able to get statistics only from 64 percent of the firms that participated in its survey. And many firms, simply refused to participate at all.

As for accountability in law firms? Hah! Unlike Corporate American where 40 percent of companies hold senior executives accountable for improving gender numbers, that concept is totally alien in law firms.

Not to be cynical, but it seems like Corporate American, law firms and everyone's uncle have become quite versed in the language of gender equality. They know the right things to say and the right programs to put in place but few believe it's an actual priority.

So what's the solution? How about setting some hard targets about promotion of female or diverse candidates? Better yet, how about deducting a few points from those who fail to meet the goals?

Imagine, having to do something radical.




Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

"Deducting a few points from those who fail to meet their goals" could happen if GCs didn't send work to law firms who fail to improve their results on retention and promotion of women. I tried that as GC but members of the board had family ties to our outside counsel. So . . .

Sobering report. Everybody likes to discuss how the playing field is fair. Nobody likes being labeled sexist. And yet there's this... We have a long way to go!

I feel I have been completely discriminated against because I started law school as a 2nd career, an older woman (56), and the school I attended disqualified me after the death of my father. No one is listening and I know I could make a difference if not for the "good ole' boys network." Anyone wanting to help would be appreciated.

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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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