Sunday, March 19, 2006

Of gender gaps and glass ceilings

"Firms want women to stay. Men at the firms want women to stay, and women want to stay. So why aren't they?" asks Karen M. Lockwood, a partner at Howrey in Washington. "Law firms are way beyond discrimination — this is about advancement and retention. Problems with advancement and retention are grounded in biases, not discrimination."

One of the views expressed in this NYTimes story by Timothy O'Brien on women's progress in law:

Although the nation's law schools for years have been graduating classes that are almost evenly split between men and women, and although firms are absorbing new associates in numbers that largely reflect that balance, something unusual happens to most women after they begin to climb into the upper tiers of law firms. They disappear.

According to the National Association for Law Placement, a trade group that provides career counseling to lawyers and law students, only about 17 percent of the partners at major law firms nationwide were women in 2005, a figure that has risen only slightly since 1995, when about 13 percent of partners were women.

Since law is one of the coveted professions that shower both money and respect on the professional. The story quotes a lawyer who did manage to rise to the top:

"You have a given population of people who were significantly motivated to go through law school with a certain career goal in mind. ... What de-motivates them to want to continue working in the law?"

The answer to this question could be relevant to many other lines of work as well.

A convenient way of looking at the issues presented in the article is to look at the level at which they need to be addressed: individual, institutional and societal. Are there others?

At the individual level, women are simply asked to to 'adapt' to the work style that already exists in an institution. For example, they should be more agressive in seeking plum assignments. The criticism, of course, is that this approach puts the blame on the women, in that they are asked to behave more like men!

At the institutional level, work styles and practices that are clearly not conducive for women's participation must be identified and banned. For examples, informal meetings over after-hours drinks; if it is established that they serve to exclude women, they must be banned. Bankers, apparently, have an extreme version in which they go out with colleagues and clients to strip clubs! (A collection of reports documenting gender issues in banking can be found here).

At the level of the society at large, the value system must change (somehow!) -- for example, the notion that women must bear the bulk of the burden of household work.

Clearly, a combination of many different strategies is what is required to address the core issue: women face many more obstacles than men do in their path to higher levels in an organization. To the extent that lots of women want to pursue a career in science (Philip Greenspun [via] strongly disputes this claim), but find it more difficult (than men do) to rise to the top, there are lessons for science in how law firms and other businesses deal with this issue.