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Are Women's Initiatives Distractions?

Vivia Chen

April 18, 2012

©contrastwerkstatt - Fotolia.comYou remember Sallie Krawcheck, right? She was a perennial on those list of "most powerful women on Wall Street"—until she wasn't. Last fall she was fired from her post as the president of global wealth and investment management at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, adding to the stockpile of high-profile female executives who have gotten axed in recent years.

In an upcoming issue of Marie Claire (yes, a fashion magazine, not a business journal!), Krawcheck (pictured below) talks about being one of the few top women on Wall Street. To me, she's refreshingly frank.

First, she's not afraid to embrace her feminine sensibility. On the subject of regrets, for instance, Krawcheck says: "There are always things you would do differently. I'm a female—it's a very female characteristic to think through issues again and again." (Sadly, I can relate to that.)

And on work/life balance, she says: "Choose your husband carefully. . . . If you're caught in a meeting and walk through the door late, what you want is a spouse who says, 'Can I get you a glass of wine?' versus 'Where were you?' with an eye roll." (Practical advice. You won't get that from a dewy-eyed 20-something.)

But it's her response about the dearth of women in high finance that's bound to get some people upset:

If you look around Wall Street and corporate America, we're putting women on diversity councils; we're putting them in mentoring programs; we're giving them special leadership training, telling them how to ask for promotions—but we are not promoting them. My goodness, we're just making women busier.

Sallie-Krawcheck-Bank-of-AmericaJust when women thought they've finally found the elixir to success, Krawcheck is telling us we've been sold snake oil! For years now, it's been drilled into us that mentoring and leadership training are what women need to get to the next level. Indeed, a lament I often hear is how law firms are behind corporations in providing these offerings.

I'm often impressed by some of the programs that firms offer these days—there are speaker series, career coaching, and formal mentoring/sponsorship programs. Not since college have I seen such a wealth of extracurricular offerings.

At the same time, though, I've often wondered if they're just pacifiers—or to put it less cynically, time wasters. How do people who bill 2,000 hours a year also manage to participate in all those programs?

Patricia Gillette, a partner at Orrick, also has her doubts about the efficacy of these initiatives. She says that women often "let firms off the hook" when they let themselves get sucked into these "soft" projects. She adds that firms think they've fulfilled their duty to diversity "because women are in charge of the women's initiatives." Meanwhile, she says, "the leadership roles that influence firm policy continue to be filled by men."

To Gillette, women must first have genuine policy-making powers. "Then mentoring, part-time, maternity, and equal pay issues will have some chance of being solved," she says.

I like the idea of putting more emphasis on getting women to top positions—though I doubt that will be a quick fix either.

How useful are women's initiatives at your firm? Are they pushing women to the top of the pyramid? Or just keeping them busy at a Sisyphean endeavor?

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I couldn't agree more with the article and the comments. The problem I see with most women's initiatives is that they focus only on "fixing the women" and ignore the organization-level changes firms need to make. I detailed some of these changes in a blog post (http://ctcalvert.blogspot.com/2011/11/overhauling-fruitless-womens.html). After mentioning the need to educate the firm on unconscious bias and the business case, I recommended: "Actions to remove barriers to women’s advancement, such as restructuring the firm’s performance evaluation process to reduce bias, retooling the firm’s assignment system, instituting a nonstigmatized flexible work policy for all lawyers, holding every partner accountable for retaining and developing women lawyers, making compensation and advancement systems transparent, incentivizing championing of women lawyers, overhauling business development credit policies, and providing support for women lawyers’ business development efforts." A system to monitor the results of the actions and retool as necessary is also essential. Without changes such as these, women's initiatives will continue to be like one hand clapping.

It's time for women's initiatives - and women individually - to become more strategic and results-focused. There is great value in building strong women's networks but they cannot remedy the real problem: women's lack of power. I often hear from women who are in leadership positions and are well compensated but still remain out of the loop when it comes to client opportunities and strategic decision-making. Those are controlled by men - they hold 85% of the equity partnerships, almost all the top leadership positions, and even more of the business of the firm. Women will remain outsiders until firm leaders - i.e., powerful men - make it a strategic goal and top priority to advance women into positions of power, AND are held accountable for actually doing it. This is no easy task. The business case is compelling but it has to overcome entrenched interests and institutionalized bias. It will take courageous leadership by men and women. But we must bring men into this effort in order to see any significant progress.

The best thing is to have a high-quality, serious, effective leadership development program open to all employees, regardless of gender. If it truly is effective (like at my company, thankfully), women will get what they need out of it and will start getting promoted.

I like the programming at my company's women's networking events, and have met some of the coolest women there - from former White House staff to writers and chefs. And during my long career in financial services, since 1984, I've never felt left out because I was a woman. Okay - there was one time. But that guy was soon fired. True - I have not met anywhere near the success of Sallie Krawchek, but she's the kind of woman I could never be. She's very serious, I'm very silly. She's very focused and I'm easily distracted. My lack of success has nothing to do with being a woman. She does offer one piece of very sound advice - choose your husband carefully. I sure didn't.

While I don't necessarily agree with the cause and effect, I do feel that women and the companies that employ them have their eye on the wrong ball. So much of the focus has been placed on institutional initiatives ( flex time, telecommuting, family leave, etc) -- which, by the way, are issues for everyone, not just women -- that the real work of helping women become resilient and engaging them in the real work of skill building (developing spheres of influence, negotiating, effective communication, rainmaking, for example) is being overlooked. And worse, women are now being encouraged to have a "sponsor" to carry their water, put forward their ideas and push them for promotion; to me, this is anachronistic, paternalistic and altogether missing the point. In fact, I generally think that these women's affinity groups are ultimately ghettoizing and should have a calculated obsolescence. After all, women have to function with men in business and vice versa and the truth is that each gender can benefit from the other in terms of evolving new leadership models for the complexities of the 21st century global marketplace.
And finally, the most powerful argument for women to occupy higher positions is the business case. ALWAYS make the business case: companies with women in senior positions or serving on boards enjoy greater profitability, return greater shareholder value and experience greater stability.

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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: [email protected]

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