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Fit to Be Tied

Vivia Chen

May 31, 2012

© Alex Gumerov- iStockphotoMaybe I should stop reading those studies about women's progress in the workplace. Because every time I do, I feel we should just hang it up and take up knitting or butter churning. It seems that women's stagnation is a universal problem.

Here's the latest: McKinsey & Company just looked at the gender diversity programs at 235 European companies. It finds that despite the prevalence of these programs ("63 percent of companies have at least 20 different initiatives in place"), there has been paltry progress:

Many companies still express their frustration at the absence of more concrete results. Indeed, in only 8 percent of the biggest companies in the survey did women account for more than a quarter of the top jobs.

McKinsey finds that one big problem is that companies aren't really that supportive of those initiatives, even though they pour money into them.

While 69 percent of companies said they had mentoring programs in place for women, only 16 percent said they were well implemented, citing, for example, fast-waning enthusiasm from mentors and mentees alike. Some interviewees also suggested women feared association with what some regard as positive-discrimination measures that undermine meritocracy.

Sound familiar? As I recently reported, some folks are getting tired of those gender diversity initiatives, questioning whether they are time-suckers or irrelevant.

This report echoes another McKinsey report ("Unlocking the Full Potential of Women at Work") that focused on women in the United States. In that report, which examined 60 Fortune 500 or similar-sized companies, the authors tried to put a positive spin on women's progress, though I didn't see much to cheer about.

Besides finding that women are pretty much stuck in middle management, the report says that many women aren't aiming for the top at all: "Despite investment, women opted for staff roles, quit, retired, or even settled in." Moreover, the report finds that "two-thirds of women on Fortune 200 executive committees were in staff roles, and they have far lower odds of advancing to CEO than those in line roles."

So why aren't women gunning for the jobs that would propel them to the top? Here's where the report on American women gets really depressing:

1. CEOs aren't really into it. "Although CEOs made gender diversity a priority in more than 80 percent of our 60 participating companies, only about half of employees from those companies agreed that the CEO is committed to the issue."

2. Women carry the weight at home even when they are the breadwinner. "About half the women we surveyed said that they are both primary breadwinners and primary caregivers. Most of the men who are primary breadwinners are not primary caregivers."

3. Male bosses don't really get women. One CEO tells McKinsey: "Women don’t knock on my door the way men do or ask for advice. I wish they were more proactive." Another boss says: "For one opening, we had an employee who was highly qualified—she was running operations in Asia. However, we didn’t ask her if she would be interested in the position, since she was pregnant and we assumed that she wouldn’t want to move."

4. Women lack confidence. "Even among the successful women we interviewed, more than half felt they held themselves back from accelerated growth. . . . They did not raise their hands or even consider stretch roles. And when surveyed, more women than men reported that they would likely move next into support roles."

Both reports focus on women in the business sector, but I'm sure you see parallels to the legal world. Indeed, women are stuck in the middle everywhere you look. It's no secret that few women in law are equity partners, and even fewer hold positions on executive or compensation committees. And like their business counterparts, "pink ghetto" jobs like staff lawyer and part-time positions tend to be filled mostly with women.

So how do we break this sorry cycle and break free? Stay tuned—I'll try to find a silver lining somewhere.

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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.



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I'm getting a little frustrated that the most cited reason for not having more women at the top is that they are busy being primary caregivers. It completely ignores women, like me, who don't have kids, don't want kids and just want to work hard and succeed but are not being giving acess to plum opportunities at work. How do you explain that??

I think trial dog is on target. I would say that the people who has found the right work/life balance for themselves and their families are the ones we should be holding up as successful.

Rather than trying to get #% of each gender into each level in a corp or legal practice, why don't we just make sure the barriers are removed so the guys who want to spend time w/ kids don't face stigma and women who want to be CEO/etc. can and not be thought of as less feminine.

I think that the problem with articles like this is that it's searching for "a" cause of something that has a million individual causes. Sure there are CEO's that don't "get" it, but when a CEO places value on "knocking on his door and asking for advice," maybe it's the women (and men) who don't do that who "don't get it."

I think an overlooked factor is that many of us of both genders are told that the gold ring isn't really gold, and the secret to happiness is having a better balance between career and outside life. It is true that men who cut their hours back for other, non-career interests don't have a great chance of making it to the top, but in fact I'm kind of jealous about the life they have. Is it possible that women are in "pink ghettoes" because they have a better sense of perspective about what's important, and having that better perspective is not conducive to getting the "top job?"

If so, the main thing that needs to change is to stop looking on those people as unsuccessful. Maybe they are the most successfule among us.

I have a Ph.D. in Immunology and a J.D. And I knit. I completely understand and share your frustration with disparities in how women are treated and paid, but I don't think it has to do with our hobbies--knitting, churning, or otherwise.

yes I totally agree. It's tiresome being the primary breadwinner on top of that the primary caregiver.

It would surely help if the men help out with the caregiving at home.

Though the equilibrium of men as caregivers is slowly shifting, it is really painstakingly slow.

Nonetheless, I feel that the only way for women to excel in career is to have a supporting family who will be there to help you out at home when you are out there fighting on the battlefield. ;)

I think this rings very true in the law. Many female attorneys I know (some non-equity) don't want the equity positions. They are breadwinners plus primary caregivers and just the thought of trying to develop business, bill your hours get business plus spend quality time with your kids is exhausting. They can't do it all & when faced with a choice, family wins.

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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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