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Keep It Simple: Blame It on Men

Vivia Chen

January 14, 2020

Spencer_Tracy_02Why do we keep banging our heads against the wall about why women aren’t flourishing in law firms? The list of possible reasons keeps growing, like an out-of-control philodendron.

We can explore all the many factors until we turn blue, but let’s put blame where it obviously belongs: on men. Because they hold the power. Simple.

I’m talking about you, leaders of Big Law, especially those of you who swear that promoting women is an absolute priority. You’re the Man. You’re powerful. You’re brilliant. Yet many of you can’t get to that measly 20% mark for female equity partners. What’s your problem?

I know making the patriarchy the culprit isn’t cutting-edge, but that’s where the evidence keeps pointing. I’ve read numerous studies about the plight of women in the workplace, and one thing sticks out: The men holding power in those organizations are clueless about what women need and want. (Perhaps that’s true not only in the workplace.) And perhaps they don’t care. 


In a nutshell, men at the top don’t understand women. What’s arguably worse, because men think they’re addressing women’s frustration in the workplace, they’re contributing to the stalemate. 

There’s a gaping hole in the way the sexes perceive the problem, according to a study by the American Bar Association and ALM Intelligence that surveyed 1,300 attorneys in the nation’s 500 largest firms. Amazingly, men and managing partners consistently gave themselves high marks. For instance, 91% of men and 82% of managing partners said they are “active advocates of gender diversity,” while only 62% of women agreed.

“There’s about a 30% difference between men and women on each of five critically important questions,” says Roberta Liebenberg, who co-authored the study with Stephanie Scharf. Besides asking whether firm leaders are actively advocating for women, questions also included whether gender diversity is regarded as a firm priority and how successful firms have been in retaining and promoting women to leadership and equity partnership.

There’s also a similar kind of disconnect in the general corporate world. In the latest McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org study on women in the workplace, 87% of companies said they “are highly committed to gender diversity,” though only half of employees held that rosy view.

I don’t know whether those in power are being hypocritical or if they’ve drunk too much of their own Kool-Aid. The kinder interpretation, I suppose, is to assume they have the best of intentions. But what good does that do?

Or, as Liebenberg puts it, “How can we expect to achieve meaningful progress if male partners, who wield the most power in law firms, don’t believe there is a serious problem that needs to be fixed?”

Though she says that she believes “firm leaders understand the need for gender equality,” she notes that “law firms appear to be struggling with what to do.” 

And the worst offenders, ironically, are those who pride themselves on running a system based on talent.

“Those leaders who tend to view their firms as meritocracies are less likely to recognize the significant impact that implicit biases and old-boys’ network favoritism have on the women lawyers in their firms,” Liebenberg says.

Smug. Out of touch. From another planet. Boys, what are we going to do with you?

Contact Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com

On Twitter: @lawcareerist

Photo: Spencer Tracy, Father's Little Dividend, Wikipedia

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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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