June 04, 2013 Practice Points

What Women in Law Can Learn From Women in Business New

By Brande Stellings

Women’s advancement within law firms has flatlined in the last decade. The National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) annual survey of women in AmLaw 200 law firms shows that only 15 percent of equity partners are women—the same percentage since NAWL began tracking these numbers in 2006. In fact, in the last two years, this percentage has declined. The news is not so different in the corporate world. Catalyst’s annual Census, which tracks the number of women on boards and in executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies, reveals that women’s representation in business has also stalled in the 14–16 percentage range.

Many attribute these disparities to women’s reluctance to go after the top jobs. But research shows that there is no “ambition gap” between men and women. In Women and Men in U.S. Corporate Leadership, Catalyst surveyed nearly 1,000 senior-level employees who shared similar backgrounds and characteristics—and learned that women aspired to be CEO in proportions equal to men, but they often faced obstacles that men do not. These obstacles included, but were not limited to, persistent gender stereotyping, a dearth of female role models, and exclusion from the informal professional networks that can lead directly to opportunities those outside of the network might never learn about.

In The Promise of Future Leadership: Highly Talented Employees in the Pipeline, Catalyst surveyed business school graduates from around the world to gain insights about career advancement that might benefit women in business. The career advancement tips gleaned from this project are equally helpful to women in law.

Don’t shy away from big opportunities. The research showed that women are willing and able to take on mission-critical assignments that will boost their visibility and enhance their value in their firm’s eyes—but they aren’t being offered these jobs, due in part to ingrained assumptions that they won’t want them. The most valuable professional development doesn’t happen in a classroom. In fact, experts estimate that only 10 percent of an employee’s career development takes place in formal leadership development programs; about 20 percent takes place as a result of networking, mentoring, coaching, and other influential relationships; and as much as 70 percent results from being given access to the kinds of “hot jobs” that are critical to advancement. In other words, the most valuable experience a woman can gain is the kind that only comes from learning on the job—so don’t hold yourself back by waiting until you feel qualified. Go after the big assignments now. Your supervisor will be impressed with your initiative, you’ll learn a lot, and you’ll demonstrate your value much more profoundly than you could by entering a leadership development program.

Get or be a sponsor. Getting a sponsor isn’t a question of asking—if you’re dedicated and diligent, you can attract one, or several, by making yourself indispensable and making sure the right people notice. Sponsors can be harder to come by than mentors, but they’re far more valuable in the long term. It’s important to find someone who will actively promote you, not just share friendly advice. Women understand that it’s advantageous to have a mentor and tend to seek one out, but high-potential men pursue mentors as well—and their mentors are typically more senior than women’s, making it likelier that men will receive the support of highly placed sponsors. Women can catch up by being strategic about the professional relationships they cultivate.

Reevaluate your strategy for getting ahead. All career advancement strategies are not created equal; many women are doing everything they have been told could help them to advance—yet they’re still not making partner or landing that corner office.

  • Men benefit more than women do from adopting proactive strategies.
  • Even when women employ the same tactics as successful men, they still advance less than their male counterparts and experience slower pay growth.
  • It’s not that women don’t ask for what they want, whether that’s greater responsibility, a promotion, a raise, or all three—it’s simply that men don’t have to.

Don’t get mad; get even. Catalyst research shows that women are more likely than men to ask for career enhancing experiences, and they are just as likely as men to negotiate for higher compensation—but they don’t get the same payoff. The Myth of the Ideal Worker uncovered several tactics that measurably boosted the careers of the women in the study:

  • Make your achievements visible. Women who emphasize their accomplishments are more likely to get ahead and increase their salaries. It pays to toot your own horn.
  • Strike the right balance. Ingrained gender stereotypes make certain forms of self-promotion more risky for women. (People tend to like confident men better than they like confident women.) Be direct and specific without going overboard. Always give credit to others when it’s due, but never downplay your own achievements.
  • Cultivate relationships with senior partners. If you want to be a senior partner one day, today’s senior partners need to know who you are and what you’ve accomplished—and that your goal is to make partner. It’s important to show and tell your firm’s senior leaders that you’re interested in advancing.

Help other women.

Women who were mentored or sponsored tend to “pay it forward” by developing other high-potential employees—and, because doing so may help their organizations retain top talent and boost employee engagement, senior women who help other women tend to advance more rapidly and be better compensated than their less generous peers.

Keywords: woman advocate, litigation, career advancement, sponsors, mentors