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Gender Gap Due, in Part, to ‘Ambition Gap’?

A friend of mine, who is a woman General Counsel with a prominent company, sent me this interesting March 28, 2008 ABA article written by Martha Neil about the "Gender Gap" issue that I wanted to share with you.

Although Hillary Clinton is, perhaps, a rare exception, there is a reason why women are underrepresented in lawyer-laden political circles.

It's because they don't fight as hard as men do for political office, writes Ruth Marcus in a Washington Post column.

"There is a substantial gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it, and women don't," says a recent Brookings Institution report (PDF) that Marcus cites.

Disproportionate family responsibilities and a "cockiness gap," as Marcus describes it (men tend to have more confidence), also play a significant role in this discrepancy, the report found.

Does what Marcus terms an "ambition gap" between men and women in the political arena also help explain the disproportionately small number of female partners at law firms?

Women have no problem getting a foot in the door and working successfully at law firms initially for several years. But then they do not rise through the ranks to partner in the same numbers as their male counterparts. This is documented, for instance, in a recent study by a University of Iowa sociologist, although she is not the only one to have noted the phenomenon. Meanwhile, the reasons for discrepancy remain somewhat elusive.

"What we don't know is whether the women intentionally steered themselves off the path to partnership, or whether someone blocked the road and pushed them off," says sociologist Mary Noonan in a U of I press release about her study.

Virtually all of the women reported that they had experienced gender-based discrimination from other lawyers or clients, according to Noonan.

Writes Marcus: "Sometimes the hardest glass ceilings are the ones women impose, whether knowingly or unconsciously, on ourselves."

Here are my thoughts on this:

Family responsibilities still fall disproportionately on women, and certainly a number of women are not interested in becoming law firm partners or general counsels for a variety of reasons. Yet, the majority or women either leave or are not being promoted, not for lack of want or ambition.

There is evidence of class ceiling issues and quality of life issues that are still keeping a great number of women from achieving their full potential and filling these top positions.

Accounting firms have tapped into this issue, and their results have been astonishing. In 1993, before Deloitte & Touche initiated its "Women's Initiative," a mammoth program aimed at addressing various glass ceiling and quality of life issues for women - only 7% of partners were women.

Since the "Women's Initiative" was first launched in 1994 - 19.2% of partners are women, and growing. That's triple what it was nearly fifteen years ago. Despite this success, Deloitte acknowledges that they still have a ways to go.

Obviously, Deloitte & Touche seems to think that even more women are ready, willing, and able to move to these high level positions. This seems to suggest that want and ambition alone is not all that is necessary for women to accede to these top positions.

Since accounting firms and law firms operate under a very similar model, perhaps some of their successful strategies could be applicable to law firms as well. There is something to be said about law firms, as well as companies in general, that are coming up short in terms of promoting more women to the top. Are they missing something?

The issue more often than not is not about women not wanting these positions, but rather about women not getting to a place where they can refuse them.

What do you think?

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