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Birds in a Cage

Vivia Chen

April 12, 2011

WomanCaged I've been in the dumps lately, and I have my reasons. First, I recently returned from a business trip to Houston, where I grew up. Since I hadn't set foot there for at least 15 years, it was a bit unsettling. To add to the trauma, I lost my smartphone in my mad dash to the George Bush Airport to catch my flight back to New York. So now a part of me (my iPhone was like family) will always stay in Houston. A discomfiting thought.

It also doesn't cheer me up that a spate of bad news about women awaited me. As if we needed more evidence, there's more research confirming that women's careers are stuck in a rut. According to new findings by McKinsey & Co., women aren't reaching the top of the corporate ladder, and lose whatever drive they had at the beginning of their careers by the time they reach middle management. (Hat tip: The Wall Street Journal.) 

What holds women back, says the McKinsey report, are powerful "entrenched beliefs":

While companies have worked hard to eliminate overt discrimination, women still face the pernicious force of mind-sets that limit opportunity. Managers—male and female—continue to take viable female candidates out of the running, often on the assumption that the woman can’t handle certain jobs and also discharge family obligations. . . .

These imbedded mind-sets are often institutional as well as individual—and difficult to eradicate. A CEO’s personal crusade to change behavior does not scale. A diversity program by itself, no matter how comprehensive, is no match for entrenched beliefs.

But what really got my attention--and made me despondent--is that women hold some of these prejudices about themselves. The report says: "We found that many women, too, hold limiting beliefs that stand in their own way—such as waiting to fill in more skills or just waiting to be asked."

Like their counterparts in business, women lawyers are stuck in the never-never land of senior associate or nonequity partnership positions. And like their sisters in low to mid-management, they are not getting much training or mentoring to get out of the rut.

The McKinsey report proposes an "organizational transformation" to address the systemic challenges. More sobering, though, is that McKinsey says that "our research on organizational change indicates that 70 percent of transformation efforts fail."

Of course, the report attempts to be positive, calling for "strong leadership from the top and a comprehensive plan to shift mind-sets and behaviors." Moreover, it notes that "changing only the mind-sets of the executive committee and other senior leaders misses the most important influencers of sustained change--employees’ direct supervisors."

What's worked are "more flexible work routines, implementing career off-ramps and on-ramps, and policies that enable women to survive the dual responsibilities of family and work." But McKinsey cautions, "the next leg of this long journey requires something much harder to achieve—genuine transformation."

I think the report is spot-on. And I'd like to say that it left me hopeful, but I'm afraid it had the opposite effect. Reading it made me feel like I was still stuck in Texas.


Related posts: Silence of Women, Where Are the Women Litigators, Making Babies.

Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.

Follow The Careerist on Twitter: twitter.com/lawcareerist

Photo: Jaimie Duplass / Fotolia


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Vivian, take a look at Liz Kurtz's coverage of this issue in her BigLaw column, "Women in Large Law Firms: The Enemy Within?"

Perhaps the legal profession can look to the military where women have been leading at the colonel level and above for years. Before NATO took it, the U.S. combat air operations in/around Libya were led by a female Air Force general.

@ Dianne If you're not sure you understand my statement, you have proven my point.

Hmm, "entrenched beliefs" are what is actually keeping women from progressing up the corporate ladder, huh? Maybe some should tell Wal-Mart to use that as a defense in their sexual discrimination lawsuit: http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2011/04/06/why-the-walmart-sex-discrimination-class-action-lawsuit-is-already-dead/

I'm not sure I understand Dirk Johanson's cryptic comment. DJ, are you the Larry Summers of law?
If your position is that women are not capable of, or interested in, reaching higher positions, man up and say so. Then take the heat and admit it when you are proven wrong.

Please stop trashing Houston and Texas. It is a wonderful place to live and work, with dynamic business and legal communities across this incredibly diverse city. International law firms are opening offices here because of its business opportunities. The national press gives Houston a bad rap; you should not.

Sometimes entrenched and limiting beliefs are entrenched and limiting for a reason.

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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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