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Ten years ago, 14 percent of the equity partners in the top 200 law firms were women. Today, that number is just 16 percent. A 2-percent increase in one decade is not enough for ABA President-Elect Laurel Bellows. She took that concern to the Young Lawyers Division spring meeting in Nashville, Tenn., where she and YLD Chair Michael Bergmann led a Town Hall Meeting on Gender Equality.
“We’re looking at you to help us make a change,” said Bellows, who challenged the ballroom of young men and women lawyers to help her. “What needs to be done to achieve gender equity? What can the ABA do to solve the problem?”
“In order to be an inclusive profession that truly has equal opportunity for all lawyers across the country, we need to have everyone at the table, including us white guys,” added Bergmann. “We really need men to lead on these gender issues.”
Setting the tone for the discussion, Bellows cited an American Bar Foundation study that found a male with children was regarded as a “family man” and described as dedicated, dependable and committed, while the words “stressed out” and “conflicted” were associated with a working woman. “Right there you have a disparity with two people who have the same children,” Bellows said.
Implicit or hidden bias may be to blame. When asked “How many of you have experienced discrimination?” only about one-fourth of the audience members raised their hands. They seemed to agree that discrimination can be easier to recognize when it happens to someone else. One young lawyer told of how a mentor had increased his awareness when she pointed it out to him. “Have you ever noticed that when I make a suggestion, no one notices, but then so-and-so makes the same suggestion five minutes later, and everyone thinks he just parted the Red Sea?” the mentor told him.
When Bellows asked how many in the audience had seen a woman passed over for an assignment that went to a male colleague who was her equal, she seemed astonished when no hands went up.
Former YLD Chair Kelly-Ann Clarke of Texas said she didn’t notice as a young associate what she now sees with 12 years under her belt. “This entire conversation is a wake-up call,” she said. “Watch for it. Look for it. Be aware of what’s happening around you.”
One young lawyer explained that his wife, who took parental leave from her firm to have children, found that she was not receiving the same choice assignments since returning to work, but she attributed that to the fact that she was working part time. Another audience member chimed in with a story about a woman in his firm who wanted to go part time but was told by a woman partner that she was limiting her career. Bellows asked, “Does the same stigma apply to men who want to go part time?”
Another young lawyer suggested that younger women in large law firms may have the most difficulty with resentful senior female partners who had to sacrifice and didn’t get to take time off to be with their families.
Panelist Katherine Larkin-Wong, who is president of Ms. JD, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the success of women in law school and the legal profession, pointed out that work-life balance is the number one concern for younger women. “They want to talk with top women lawyers about how they did it with a family, how they worked at a major law firm and had kids,” she said.
Many of those who have achieved success point to mentors, “who teach you the unwritten rules,” and sponsors, who take it one step further by “pushing you forward while talking about you and for you” to other partners. Panelist Latanisha Watters, who had just been made an equity partner in a majority law firm in Alabama, credits her mentors, some of them white males. “As women and African-Americans, we have a responsibility to make sure that other people who look like us have opportunities and don’t have to fight as hard as we’ve had to fight,” she said.
Keeping up the fight by moving this conversation forward is a top priority for President-Elect Bellows. “We’re going to have a white male law environment in the next 10 years if we don’t stop the ‘opt out.’”