May 10, 2013

“Day of the Woman”: Celebrating 25 Years of Commission Success

Hannah Hayes

The Commission on Women in the Profession will celebrate its 25th anniversary at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association (ABA) with an entire day of programming on gender-related issues. On August 9, the “Day of the Woman” will feature women leaders from across the country in panels focusing on women’s issues ranging from health policy to domestic violence.

“It’s been 25 years since the Commission was founded, and we have a lot of positive things to celebrate,” says Commission Chair Mary B. Cranston, chair emeritus and retired senior partner of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP in San Francisco. “But we still have very systematic biases, and this is about pulling together all the new knowledge we have gained and putting forward a game plan using the very best practices.”

While the Commission is organizing the program, each session will be cosponsored by an ABA entity. For example, the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities will join the Commission on Domestic Violence in a panel discussion about the Violence Against Women Act, and the Health Law Section will host a session on policies and women’s health issues (see sidebar).

Fifty Years of Pay Inequity

A highlight of the day will be the unveiling of findings of the Gender Equity Task Force, which ABA President Laurel Bellows established last year. The report on the “Elusive Equality: When Will Women Achieve Pay Parity?” will be followed by a midday rally and a toast to the Commission’s 25th anniversary led by Bellows.

“This is significant because this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Equal Pay Act,” says Gender Equity Task Force Chair Roberta D. Liebenberg, a senior partner at the Philadelphia firm of Fine, Kaplan and Black, R.P.C. and former chair of the Commission on Women in the Profession. “The differential in pay from where it was in 1963 is just a few cents more—today women are paid 77 cents per dollar across the board, and for women of color it is less.”

The panel for a gender equity program on August 9 will examine the historical backdrop of the Equal Pay Act as well as enforcement mechanisms and litigation surrounding the issue. Panelists also will identify steps needed to level the playing field. While the Gender Equity Task Force has been looking at women’s pay in the legal profession, the discussion will also address strategies and policies regarding pay for women in society at large.

Liebenberg will be joined on the program panel by Marcia D. Greenberger, founder and copresident of the National Women’s Law Center, and task force members Stephanie Scharf, a partner at Scharf Banks Marmor LLC in Chicago, and Patricia Gillette, a partner in Orrick’s San Francisco office and cochair of the San Francisco Bar Association’s No Glass Ceiling Initiative. Other participants will be confirmed as the date approaches.

“The panel will look at where we are now and why so little progress has been made,” Liebenberg says. For example, a key issue addressed by the task force is that employers do not allow employees to share paycheck information. “The research is quite clear that in order for there to be progress in pay, there has to be transparency in compensation systems.”

Liebenberg points out that beyond the inherent issue of fairness, a strong correlation exists between how women are compensated and where they are in positions of power. The task force will unveil specific best practices that law firms can take, including how to ensure fair billing and origination credit and establish fair succession policies.

Other recommendations will examine what law firms and women lawyers can do to help women advance into leadership positions, as well as bringing clients and general counsel into the compensation process to increase transparency. The task force has put together a “Conference in a Box” for local bar associations. These toolkits contain all the basics for them to sponsor workshops of their own to address compensation and to implement best practices.

“A key point we make is that it’s not just a women’s issue, but it’s a business issue,” Liebenberg says. “The pay disparity leads to higher attrition in law firms, and it’s not just a loss to the individual law firm, but it’s a loss of an investment in the institutional knowledge of women lawyers.”

Bringing Experience to the Fore

Another panel will focus on women in leadership. “We want people to walk away with the understanding of the successes that we’ve had over the years,” says Denise Keane, a Commission member organizing this session who is executive vice president and general counsel for Altria Group, Inc. (formerly Philip Morris Companies, Inc.), headquartered in Henrico County, Virginia. The panel will feature women leaders across the profession who will speak to their journeys and what it takes to achieve their goals.

“The Resilient Rainmaker,” a program addressing rainmaking and other ways to advance women into leadership, will be sponsored by the ABA Law Practice Management Section. “Beyond a Seat at the Table” will bring together a cross section of industries and decision makers in a variety of companies. “The panel will discuss how those of us women in leadership positions can lead by example,” says moderator Lucy Mason, a partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon L.L.P. “As well as giving encouragement and mentoring, we can do a lot to instill diversity by making the proposition that it’s good business sense.”

Mason is a member of the Women’s Management Council in Shook, Hardy & Bacon’s San Francisco office. The council was established to examine how the firm could go beyond the diversity goal of talent acquisition and focus on maintaining diverse numbers while bringing women into leadership. “Once women get in the door, we want to keep them and make sure they advance as we invest in them and help them to grow,” Mason says.

The law firm sponsored a similar panel discussion to mark the 10th anniversary of its Women’s Management Council. “We put together a panel of clients to talk about what they could do to advance women,” Mason says. “Our clients hadn’t interacted with each other before, and they left with a lot of ideas about flextime and work/life balance issues.”

The August 9 panel will be composed of general counsels and industry associate general counsels. “We know that it’s the clients who drive the change, and it’s really important for lawyers to hear clients’ expectations and experiences,” Mason says. “This conversation has been going on for a really long time. The statistics are just stubborn, so we need to get out there and energize people to think about how to promote and maintain women leaders.”

A similar panel sponsored by the ABA Section of Family Law will feature women leaders discussing “How to Walk the Talk and Change the Conversation: Practical Insights from Women Who Have Risen Above the Glass Ceiling.”

The day’s final program will showcase how women have taken the lead in the issue of cybersecurity, the focus of another task force Bellows established.

“All of the workshops promise to be positive and energizing,” says Shawn Kaminski, director of the Commission on Women in the Profession. During the lunch break following the rally, the Commission will show a video highlighting 25 years of accomplishments.

Momentum Building

News about the “Day of the Woman” already has been widespread on social media, particularly on Equal Pay Day, which was April 9. This date marked the approximate day this year when women’s pay—calculated from January 1, 2012, through April 9, 2013—finally equaled an average man’s wage in calendar year 2012. The ABA Young Lawyers Division, which last year launched a campaign to engage both female and male lawyers more actively in gender-equity issues, used this date to promote the Annual Meeting event.

“Women have a big impact on the labor pool, and companies are starting to see what they have to do with so many women coming up the pipeline,” Cranston says. “But I think the climate for women in the profession is mixed. Law is a bit behind, and this is to really try to help law step up and at least take a place at this dialogue table.”

Cranston also points out that 25 years is a long time and is a place from which to accurately assess how far women lawyers have come and how far they have to go. “While there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful, we still have a lot of work to do,” she notes.

Hannah Hayes

Hannah Hayes is a Chicago-area freelance writer.