A time traveler from the 1980s would probably be shocked at how many women hold leadership positions in law firms today — and with scarcely a shoulder pad in sight, thankfully. But dig a little deeper and it’s clear that progress doesn’t equal parity.
“About one in five c-suite executives is a woman, and only one in 25 c-suite executives is a woman of color,” McGuireWoods Partner Phyllis Young summarizes. “So it's a mixed bag: We see a lot of progress, we see signs that the glass ceiling is cracking, but it's not all where we want it to be.”
It’s a similar story across the financial and legal industries. For example, there are no all-male boards in the S&P 500: but the average number of women on S&P boards is still only 2.8, up from 1.7 a decade ago.
It takes more than hiring one or two women and people of color to reach the kind of critical mass that delivers positive changes. And then law firms and other companies have to make an intentional effort to create positive work environments that meet those new employees’ specific needs.
For example, McGuireWoods Associate Kelsey Hitchcock says that mentorship programs and benefits specifically targeted to, say, women who choose to have a family show a level of support that can be the difference between someone staying or leaving.
Fair or not, women at all levels of law firms — especially leaders — have to shoulder some of the responsibility for moving all women up the career ladder, says McGuireWoods Counsel Ann Dorsett.
“Those who are in leadership need to turn the spotlight on younger women … And those in the middle need to support women leaders and help pull up the more junior women.”
Name: Ann Dorsett
Title: Counsel at McGuireWoods
Specialty: Ann counsels clients on insurance law, including coverage litigation, claims counseling and litigation management.
Where to find her: LinkedIn
Name: Kelsey Hitchcock
Title: Associate at McGuireWoods
Specialty: Kelsey specializes in corporate transactions, advising clients on topics including mergers and acquisitions, divestitures and corporate governance.
Where to find her: LinkedIn
Name: Phyllis Young
Title: Partner at McGuireWoods
Speciality: Phyllis is an expert in transactional law, handling secured lending transactions, debt restructuring and complex intercreditor arrangements.
Where to find her: LinkedIn
Top takeaways from this episode
● Law firms must reshape workplaces to incentivize women to stay. Women are more likely to stay at a firm if they can see that other women have been promoted to leadership positions. And those female leaders will only stay if company culture suits them. That might include benefits that assist with childcare or other caregiving roles; recognizing achievements outside of work, such as charity work or homelife; mentorship programs from other women; and flexible working hours.
● Women in leadership positions have a responsibility to help other women. In an ideal world, everyone would want to see more equality at the top levels of law firms. But in our imperfect world, women are more likely to notice that disparity. And in the spirit of idealism, those in leadership roles should use their power to remove obstacles they had to climb over, and help make the next generation’s path to the top smoother than their own.
● Don’t accept sexism. Women still face sexist expectations at work. For example, women who want to work and have a family are still described as superwomen, but if a man wants the same thing, it’s not even considered worthy of comment. This is because women are still the default primary parent. Women are also more likely to be judged on personality rather than performance. The only way to root out this behavior is to call it out directly, especially if you’re in a leadership role.
[01:59] The stats are in: Phyllis summarizes the statistics on women in leadership positions, including management, boards, law schools, committees and in judgeships.
[05:26] The magic number: Research has found that a board needs at least three women to reach a critical mass that produces a change in company dynamics, including better financial performance and improved gender diversity.
[08:13] Staying-on power: Hiring more women and people of color is just the first step: firms also need to make intentional efforts to make the workplace a positive environment that they’ll want to stay at.
[10:37] Support systems: Examples of efforts that can help create that positive environment include mentorships, clear communication, and support for parents and other caregivers. These should be tracked to ensure change actually happens.
[13:40] Kick down the hurdles: Women in senior roles should actively remove the obstacles they had to fight to overcome — and call out sexism when they see it.
[19:34] Clark Kent vs. Superwoman: Unlike men, women are still told that balancing a career and a family requires a superhuman effort. This has been especially true during the pandemic, with women doing most childcare as well as work, and many leaving the workforce as a result.
[25:38] Remote possibilities: One silver lining to the pandemic, as Phyllis points out, is that employees have proved that it’s possible to be productive without being in your office for 12 hours a day.
[29:49] The climb continues: In summary, it’s important to acknowledge both the progress and the room for improvement. There has to be change at the policy level and in everyday interactions.
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