The concept of feminism has been around for decades. It has been written about, sung about, bantied about. It has been the subject of conversations in Congress and decisions of the United States Supreme Court. It has been exhibited by the bra burning extravaganzas in the 60s, the “dress like a man” fashions in the 70s, the mommy wars of the 80s, and the dropping out/opting out of the 90s.
But what is “feminism” as of 2014?
In an informal survey I did earlier this year, interviewing men and women ages 30-45, I found that they associate the word feminism with words like militant, angry, dominating, in your face, men hating women. And regardless of age or gender, these younger men and women don’t want to be associated with that term.
Instead, they want feminism in 2014 to reflect strength, conviction, confidence. and most all, equality: equality in opportunities, equality at home, equality in pay, equality in status. And, they believe that this equality is being achieved in workplaces across the country. Except in law firms.
Sadly, they are right. In fact, law firms are now and always have been dominated by white men in the leadership and rainmaking roles. In fact, despite the fact that 50% of law school classes have been female for the over twenty five years, that has had very little impact on the way our firms are managed and controlled.
Confirmation of this assertion is easily established:
- Less than 5% of the heads of law firms are women
- Barely 16% of equity partners are women
- 50% of Am Law 200 law firms have 1 or no women on their governing committees
- 50% of law firms have no women in their Top 10 rainmakers
Why is this? Why have law firms been so slow to change? Why didn’t the feminist movement that swept the country and elevated women in other industries fail to change the power structures of law firms?
To answer those questions, we have to first consider the history of women in the legal industry.
As women began to enter the legal profession, we had to join together and fight for basic rights that would allow us to practice law – the classic work life balance issues. We wanted formal maternity policies; we wanted flexible hours; we wanted part time policies. And, if you look the information collected by reputable organizations like Working Women Magazine, PARS, and NALP, you will see that most firms now have these types of policies firmly in place. And that is a good thing.
That is not to say, however, that these programs or policies are perfect or that there is not still stigma attached to women who take maternity leave or who work reduced hour schedules. For example, we know there is still a maternal wall – the assumption that once you have a baby you are viewed as less committed; we know that it is harder for women who work part time to become partners in law firms; we know that most of the men evaluating potential candidates for partner or for assignments to big cases or deals or who control important client relationships, for the most part, have spouses who don’t work outside the home. And we know that those men are influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by those factors.
But, at least as an industry, we now have the policies in place in most firms that give us the basis for asserting these basic work place rights. So the burden is now on individual firms to ensure that these policies are administered in an effective and non-discriminatory manner.
The problem is that having accomplished this global “victory” for the industry, the women’s movement stalled for several years. We kept talking about these issues – so that every conference, every women’s initiative, every women’s publication focused on work life balance issues. And because this issue is all we talked about and because the men weren’t talking about it , these became “women’s issues” .
Meanwhile the men were talking about the things that spell power in law firms: business development and leadership issues. So while we were holding teas and spa days as part of our “client development” efforts and talking to each other about work life balance, the men were asking to be taken on pitches, asking to be groomed for leadership positions, and asking to be assigned to important cases and deals
As a result, women lost ground and were relegated second class citizen roles – non-equity partners, insignificant leadership positions, assignments to “managing cases” instead of doing the substantive work, taken on pitches for the optics but not given the work or the origination credit. We weren’t asking for and weren’t getting the kinds of opportunities the men got.
While this doesn’t completely explain women attorneys’ lack of power in law firms, it is one of the reasons why we are so far behind in attaining institutional and economic power in our firms. Because if you aren’t asking for the power, you won’t get a seat at the table. And unless you are at the table, you don’t have the power to influence decisions that impact your life. The importance of getting into positions of power and then exercising that power is what the feminists in law firms lost sight of over the years.
So feminism in 2014 , to me, reflects the movement that doesn’t give up on, but shifts our focus from “women’s issues” to the only strategy that will allow us to ensure gender diversity at all levels in our firms: ensuring that women are elevated to positions of power and leadership. And in law firms that means becoming rainmakers and being placed in the meaningful leadership positions, where the policy decisions are being made.
But we can’t do that alone. And we don’t have to. We can collaborate and join with our male colleagues by getting them to advocate with us for change. The time has come to invite men into the tent because the new feminism recognizes not only that men are not the enemy, but that men are and want to be aligned with us.
What’s changed to make that so? Men have changed.
Older men, who in decades past were suspect of women advocating for power, are gone and in their place are baby boomer men who have daughters in their 20s and 30s. And they want their daughters to be successful. As their daughters try to advance within their firms, these men are beginning to see the barriers to leadership and power positions that are entrenched in law firm culture and they are beginning to advocate for change.
Then there are the younger men who are rising into positions of power. These young men were raised in an environment where their mothers worked and where they were taught in school that women and men are equal. These young men aren’t put off by working for a women; they aren’t surprised to women in powerful positions; they don’t think of women as the ones who are necessarily going to stay home and care for the kids. They see women as equals. But most importantly, for these younger men, many of the work life balance issues that up until now have been women’s issues are things they care about – they want to be there when their kids are born, they want to spend time with their children; they want to have a life outside of work; they want balance.
These baby boomer and young men are now our allies and we need to embrace them in the feminist movement. We will still have to work on the barriers to equality that continue to plague our industry – unconscious bias, the old boy’s club, the queen bees. But if we can get men to join us in advocating for change and gender equity in positions of leadership and economic power in our firms, we can move the dial toward more equality.
Some of the things we should be advocating for with our male colleagues include changing the outdated pyramid structure of law firms, incenting behavior that promotes the institution not the individual, untying leadership positions from rainmakers, encouraging the lattice not the ladder approach to progression within our firms, instituting formal succession plans for institutional client relationships, examining origination credit, holding partners accountable for meaningful integrating their teams, and using compensation to reward and incent activities that increase diversity in leadership and economic power positions..
If we join together with our male colleagues whose interests are surprising more aligned with our interests than we ever dreamed, we become more powerful, more effective, more able to move the feminist agenda forward.
Tammy Wynette told us in the 1970s to “Stand by your Man”. Now it is time to for us to Stand With Our Men. And that should be the rallying call for new feminism.
By Patricia K. Gillette