January 19, 2016 Practice Points

The Importance of Mentor Relationships

By Abigail Higgins

Michelle Silverthorn, the diversity and education director at the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, recently wrote an article, “The generation gap: Two views of being an attorney hurts the old and the young,” in the Chicago Lawyer in which she discussed the importance in encouraging mentor relationships that highlight multiple career paths, personal guidance, shared experiences and mutual respect between young female millennials and older baby-boomer females, in order to keep young women in the workplace.

In her article, Silverthorn reported that last year, consulting group Bain & Co. released the results of a five-year study on men and women in corporate America. The study found that in the first two years of their career, 43 percent of women aspired to be in top management while only 34 percent of men aspired to do the same and both genders were equally confident about their abilities to reach those top positions. Two years later, however, 34 percent of men with two or more years of experience still wanted to be in top-level management, while only 16 percent of women still aspired to do the same. Further, women's confidence about reaching those management positions fell by 50 percent, while men's stayed the same. Bain found that these declines for women were independent of marriage and becoming a mother. Rather, women felt that they failed to meet the stereotype of an ideal worker, felt their supervisors were unsupportive of them, and felt there were few role models at the top.

Silverthorn reported that the landscape of law firms shares many similarities with corporate America. According to the American Bar Association's Commission on Women, women make up 47.3 percent of law school graduates and 44.8 percent of law firm associates. However, they only make up 20.2 percent of partners, 17 percent of equity partners, and only 4 percent of the 200 largest law firms are managed by women. Silverthorn reports that while the 20.2 percent of women partners claim they do try to mentor these young women, many of the young millennial are simply not interested in making the same career and life choices that they made.

According to Silverthorn, the lack of mentoring relationships between women in law firms is due, in part, to a generational gap between millennials and baby boomers. Silverthorn reports that in a recent survey, 94 percent of college-educated millennials agreed that their generation does not support the current model of economic and career success, while 77 percent agreed that their personal lives would take priority over their professional goals.

This generational trend, in Silverthorn's opinion, directly conflicts with many of the baby boomer female attorney's hard fight for the inclusion of family considerations in the workplace but at the same time understanding that the reality of the workplace meant success often meant less family and personal time. According to Silverthorn, older female mentors may find themselves frustrated by younger mentees looking to prioritize (not balance) personal lives and/or family lives. Conversely, younger mentees may find themselves frustrated by older mentors who offer personal life options that younger mentees do not find palatable or possible.

Silverthorn reports that the reality is that as the largest generation in the workplace, millennials will take over leadership positions in the next few decades. However, according to the Bain report, "[d]espite women comprising more than half of all college graduates and about 40 percent of MBAs, they number only a slim 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 17 percent of board members—numbers that have barely moved in decades."

Silverthorn concludes by emphasizing the importance of keeping young women in the workplace, explaining that the modern American workplace has changed significantly over the past century, thanks in large part to boomer women entering, staying in and leading the workplace.