It was big news in 2019 – as of 2018, women held 25% of the five critical C-suite positions, a 2% increase from the previous survey. And yet, with women constituting around half of the population and almost 52% of the labor force, this number is not as thrilling as some would have us believe. As of 2020, women hit a new record and yet still only constitute 7.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs. Not one of those female CEOs is a Black woman or Latina.
You might already know all of this, or at least it’s not shocking. You probably aren’t surprised that in law practice women lag behind in leadership roles too. We make up around 38% of lawyers and only about 18% of equity partners nationwide. If you’re an M&A/corporate transactional lawyer like me, or in one of the other male-dominated areas of practice, you probably are acutely aware that there are even fewer women. And when women do practice law, we are less likely to stay in firms and become partners or otherwise attain positions of power in our workplace.
Firm cultures are changing, at least in many mid-sized to large law firms. Many offer “flexible schedules,” work-from-home options, and have developed mentoring programs for young female attorneys. I have been lucky thus far in my career to work at supportive firms that contribute resources to address these issues and have had both men and women act as my advocates and mentors. But how is it that we truly advance as lawyers? Yes, we develop our lawyering skills, but what law firms are really after is business development.
Even if women theoretically have all the same access to clients as our male counterparts do, what the statistics above show is that there just aren’t as many potential women clients for us to network with. The advice I’ve heard most often from attorneys with a big book of business is that the best way to find clients is to form authentic personal relationships that engender trust and allow the lawyer to truly understand the client’s business and goals. Though we can certainly bond with potential clients based on commonalities outside of gender or sex, there is something that I understand as a female lawyer, a mother, a wife, and community member – it is often easier to truly connect with other women professionals. We understand each other, we have a stake in each other’s success, and we have often been through similar professional and personal challenges.
So, with few women in corporate decision-maker roles, we have fewer opportunities to form personal relationships that make us the go-to trusted advisor. As such, as much as it is morally incumbent upon us to lift up other women, it is almost necessary for our own success to do so. I would like to propose some ways we as business lawyers can help businesswomen reach those C-suite power positions.
- Support or Create Training Programs. Women are often said to have an imposter syndrome problem, but this is really a systemic bias problem. We don’t go out for promotions as often. We don’t ask for raises. We don’t apply for as many jobs. A LinkedIn study showed that women are 16% less likely than men to apply for a job after viewing it, and they apply to 20% fewer jobs than men do. For many women confidence comes from knowledge and experience, especially when fostered in a supportive environment. Many organizations fail to provide women with honest reviews, making it challenging for us to know our strengths and weaknesses. These training environments would afford an opportunity to provide objective feedback that can help close the confidence gap. We can, either by sharing our knowledge and expertise, or by matching up those who are looking for training with those who can provide it, help business women feel empowered to start their own businesses or go after the promotions they deserve.
- Build Networks to Connect Clients. Research shows that 70% of all jobs are not published publicly and as many as 80% of jobs are filled through personal and professional connections. When it comes to C-Suite level positions and other decision-making roles, we can assume that number is much higher. Even if the roles were published and women knew about job openings, research indicates women would be less likely to go out for these jobs. In a Korn Ferry study interviewing dozens of current and former female CEOs, the majority said they “hadn’t even considered vying for the top spot until they had a sponsor tell them they were well suited for the role.” As attorneys, we are built-in networking axes. For most of us, our clients represent a wide range of industries, company sizes, and markets. We should see ourselves as match-makers, getting the right professionals and businesses together to help our clients grow and receive the added bonus of seeing our business grow.
- Support Mothers. Most working mothers have been aware of some discrepancies in parenting obligations. The pandemic has revealed the massive and previously underreported extent of this problem. For those of us who have had to prevent a toddler from killing themselves while on a client call or somehow act as a homeschool teacher while meeting filing deadlines, we know how taxing and unfair the disproportionate childcare obligations have become. Mothers of children under 12 years of age lost work at three times the rate of fathers during the first seven months of the pandemic. Even as many families are becoming more egalitarian and sharing the parenting load, women still take on the bulk of parenting duties, and the effects of this will reverberate for years to come in decreased earning potential and opportunities for those who were forced out of the work force, even temporarily. Women might be just as qualified and smart, but if we are judged primarily on billable hours or other metrics that value certain types of productivity over others, we will keep losing talent before they can rise through the ranks. Let’s encourage our own firms as well as the businesses we counsel to think differently about how we treat mothers.
- Talk Women Up and Recommend Them. A 2017 study showed that prior to landing CEO positions, women had on average worked in a “slightly higher number of roles, functions, companies, and industries than men leading companies of a comparable size.” The women were also four years older, had more diverse experience, were more collaborative, and more willing to take on greater responsibility. What does this mean? It took women longer to get noticed, they needed to work harder to prove themselves, and actually had to be better at their jobs than comparable male candidates for someone to support their advancement. Our clients see us as trusted advisors with good judgment, so they sometimes reach out to ask us to recommend candidates when making changes in their organization. Next time, let’s put some extra effort in to locate and recommend the highly-qualified women (and especially women of color) candidates. Part of this can be addressing succession planning with clients. Especially in closely-held businesses where chief executives often look to their lawyers to discuss their legacies, let’s broach the subject of gender and diversity and make sure current executives know the advantages of hiring women leaders.
- Change the Narrative. As a fun experiment, next time you are in a group of men and women professionals, ask them a question: If you saw a job posting you were interested in that listed 10 qualifications required, how many would you feel you need to apply? The average woman in the room will say 10. The average man will say 6. When this question was asked in one of my law school colloquiums, one man said 2—imagine having that level of confidence! What’s the point? We need to normalize confidence for women. We need to draw attention to the evidence showing that we work hard, have vast and diverse experience, and navigate personal and professional challenges with grace and aplomb. Evidence from the top research institutions in the world shows that increasing the number of women leaders can be key to a company’s success. When we recommend women for high-powered roles, we are doing the company a favor, and we should not forget that. We need to do our part to examine our own biases and find ways to help ourselves and others recognize sexist and racist microaggressions that are, sadly, automatic responses for many of us. Let’s remind ourselves every day to keep supporting our sisters and create a better environment for all of us to thrive.
Each of the recommended actions above deals with loaded topics full of complex and intersectional issues of structural bias. Some of you may never face these challenges, while others will spend much of every day pushing back against stereotypes that manifest as obstacles to your personal success. Despite our different backgrounds and experiences, we can agree that our success is interdependent, and if we want to see more women in leadership positions, we have to seize our power and make it happen.
 As of 2016 the Department of Labor https://www.dol.gov/agencies/wb/data/latest-annual-data/working-women#Percent-Distribution-of-the-Labor-Force-by-Age-and-Sex
*This article also appeared in the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association’s Bar Journal (April 2021 Women in Law issue) on page 38.