November 16, 2011 Practice Points

Thirty Years Later, the Glass Ceiling Is Only Cracked

By Susan Hallquist

A recent New York Times editorial opines that 30 years after Sandra Day O’Connor heard her first cases on the Supreme Court, the glass ceiling is at best “only cracked.” Currently, the legal profession continues to show resistance to putting women in leadership positions. Not only are there fewer women in general practicing law, despite making up half of new law school graduates for the past 20 years, but the numbers for women on the bench and in equity partner positions in law firms are dismal.

Further, the editorial notes that women with children have the hardest time staying or being hired in the profession. According to a recent Cornell study, the likelihood of a woman with children being hired is 50 percent less than a woman with similar qualifications and no children. The data for women without children is not much brighter, however. Indeed, the editorial notes that according to a landmark report from the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Professio,n women’s careers are often shaped by bias.  Women face presumptions of less devotion to their jobs, pay disparity, and continued sex discrimination in the profession. 

Even though there are successful women in the field, that success often requires the ability to give some family responsibilities to a stay-at-home partner or other caretaker. This “traditional model” represents only one-sixth of the work force and is outmoded according to the author. Instead, the author posits that there are ways to retain women in the law. For example, flexible schedules are one option, but men must also choose these options to end their stigma.

 Also, transparent evaluation, assignment, and payment systems are steps toward retaining women in the profession. If the changes are not made, “. . . the profession will continue to lose talented lawyers. It will fail to be a profession that embodies gender equality—what many thought the O’Connor selection promised to bring.” "The Glass Ceiling"The New York Times, October 8, 2011.

Keywords: women, glass ceiling, gender equality

Susan Hallquist, University of Minnesota Law School, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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