Laying down the law

For years now, men and women have entered law firms in the US in almost equal numbers. And yet, the number of women in leadership positions at these firms remains remarkably low.

On average, women make up 45 per cent of associates, 26 per cent of non-equity partners, and roughly 16 per cent of equity partners. Meanwhile, women constitute only 5 per cent of managing partners in the US, according to 2006 figures from the National Association of Women Lawyers.

What’s going on here? I posed that question to Emily Spieler, who has been the dean of the Northeastern University School of Law in Boston since 2002.

“Some of it is straight up sexism,” she says. But she has another theory, and it has to do with the lack of equality in the home.

“There are extraordinary pressures on associates in law firms today,” she says. “We’re seeing in more and more surveys that young lawyers are willing to trade money for other forms of job satisfaction and work-life balance. In general, women tend to be the ones who make more sacrifices for work-life balance.”

She points to research that shows that, on balance, most men working in law firms live with partners or spouses who are accountable for only a small, if any, part of the household income. As a result, these partners generally devote more time to child-rearing and housework. By contrast, most women in law firms live with spouses who either have an equal or higher-paying job, and so both partners acutely feel the work-family squeeze.

The research on this topic, which was brought to light in a paper published a few years ago by the MIT Workplace Center, also found that 40 per cent of women lawyers solve the time challenge by working part-time. (Less than 2 per cent of men work part-time.) Nearly a third of women leave their practice altogether. In other words, women are less able than their male colleagues to rely on their spouses to pick up the slack at home, so tend to be the ones who end up seeking alternative work arrangements. Men, on the other hand, are able to excel because they have spouses or partners who don’t work, or don’t work as much, and can therefore take on more of the domestic responsibilities.

“We’ve not hit any level of equality in the division of labour in the home, so it’s not surprising that we’ve not solved the problem [of the lack of female leadership in law firms],” says Spieler.

According to the research, almost 80 per cent of the women who leave their firms do not “opt-out” of the workforce but instead work for organisations that offer better work-family provisions. The research is featured in the paper “Advancing Women in the Profession: Action Plans for Women’s Bar Associations.”

Still, Spieler, who is leaving her post at the end of this academic year, says she has some hope for the future. “I’m not a Pollyanna, but I do believe we are in a constant state of flux. I do think that kids today didn’t grow up in the same gendered world where boys are automatically on top. That gives me some hope.”

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