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Female Leaders Are Helping Women? Maybe.

Vivia Chen

March 10, 2020

Lady-1348338_1280I used to think female leaders at major law firms were unusual, almost shocking—like seeing gazelles gliding across Times Square.

Thankfully, they've become less exotic in the last half dozen years or so. At a few firms, women have held the the top spot long enough to be fixtures, such as Akin Gump's Kim Koopersmith and Morgan Lewis's Jami McKeon. And this year, more women are joining this select club, including those at Ropes & Gray; Kelly Drye & Warren; Boies Schiller; and Jenner & Block .

It's not quite a critical mass, but change is in the air. So if women are increasingly in charge, shouldn't the pace of progress for gender equality finally kick into high gear? 

Expectations are running high. Probably too high. Female managers do not contribute to greater gender equality, particularly in earnings, says a study in the European Sociological Review that analyzed data from nine countries. The bottom line: Female managers are more cogs in the machine than agents of change.

Of course, it's logical to think that women at the helm will make a difference. Among the reasons cited in the study: Female leaders presumably have experienced gender discrimination in their careers, are more understanding about work/life issues and just generally more empathetic. Plus, female managers "challenge stereotypes about women's ambition and capability."

Women who reach those lofty positions have already beaten the odds and they have more than enough on their plates as firm leaders, yet we expect them to deliver more than a man in the same situation. Is that fair?

Being a she-boss is freight with baggage, say female leaders. "We are all under pressure to perform," says Katya Jestin, Jenner & Block's new co-managing partner (her cohort is Randall Merhberg). "For women leaders, the pressures are greater and more intense."  

One feature that female leaders are highly conscious about is how others perceive their leadership style, including their "likability" quotient. "There are attributes of my style that are likely consistent with gender stereotypes," says Julie Jones, chair of Ropes & Gray, citing promoting teamwork and being a good listener as examples. "But some of my style is not consistent with stereotypes. I can be tough, especially when it comes to performance," adding that "toughness from a woman can surprise people." 

Undoubtedly, female chieftains are a tough, select bunch, so how much do they relate to the women struggling in the ranks? And do they face pressure to deliver for other women?

Candace Beinecke, the grand-dame of this crowd, says she didn't feel that pressure when she served as chair of Hughes Hubbard & Reed from 1999 to 2016: "Hughes Hubbard had a long history of providing opportunities for women, and I don’t believe the women at our firm had that in mind for my role." One of the first female leaders of a major firm, Beinecke says her role was more indirect: "I did hear from many how inspiring it was to see a woman in this leadership position and how helpful it was to have the role model." That said, she adds, "knowing that my career depended on people taking a chance on me when it was not expected, made me committed to encouraging that same approach by others."

Some of the younger female leaders seem to take a more proactive approach. "I try to see every decision through the lens of diversity and inclusion, and to help in my small way bridge the opportunity gaps that exist, and to model that behavior in our firm," says Jestin, a former federal prosecutor and parent of three children. 

"Women do talk to me about their careers, and I really enjoy that part," says Natasha Harrison, the new co-managing partner (with Nicholas Gravante) of Boies Schiller Flexner. A British citizen of Greek origin who was the first in her family to attend university, the London-based Harrison says, "I see it all as about challenging the status quo. As a diverse creature myself in terms of gender and background, I feel strongly about this issue." Diversity, Harrison stresses, includes "all types," including economic and social status.

But with all the challenges that Harrison faces (Boies has had a series of partner defections this year), does she need this extra burden to promote equality? Isn't this an unfair expectation that's put upon women?

"I don't think of it as pressure, but rather, opportunity and privilege," she says.

For me, it’s a mandate. But I also do discuss it for boad, and we spend a lot of time talking about it. I do feel other feel strongly --social diversity and all dif types o div is impt..It’s impt for success..As a diverse creature myself in terms of gender, I feel it strongly.


Twitter: @lawcareerist



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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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