The Equality Commission, a collaborative effort of the Massachusetts Bar Association, the Women’s Bar Association and the Boston Bar Association, released the results from a study entitled, “Women Lawyers and Obstacles to Leadership” on May 2. The study examined both genders’ ascension to make partner in law firms and was conducted by the MIT Workplace Center. The commission is the brainchild of the Hon. Nancy Gertner of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Commission representatives from the WBA, MBA and BBA turned to Mona Harrington, program director at the MIT Workplace Center, an expert on work-family research, to lead this eye-opening study.
Among other questions, the “Obstacles to Leadership” study aimed to answer why women make up only 17 percent of equity partnerships in Massachusetts law firms. Its purpose was to pinpoint where biases remain in the profession and why this prevents women from staying in the profession.
The findings derived from the study indicate that women and men enter law firms in essentially equal numbers, but women leave firm practice at every pre-partner level at a far higher rate than men – more than 30 percent for women and less than 20 percent for men.
At the May 2 briefing to announce the results, Gertner offered introductory remarks to the sizable audience that gathered at the John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse in Boston.
“This is not an abstract discussion, this is about our lives,” she said, addressing the predominantly female crowd. Gertner explained that the “pipeline” of women professionals has been “gushing” for nearly two decades, yet men are making partner over women at a highly disproportionate rate.
Harrington and colleague Helen Hsi, Ph.D., followed Gertner to provide a straightforward explanation of the study’s findings. “There is a mismatch of those women entering the profession and those at their top of the profession. The report measures this mismatch,” said Harrington.
The report results from two separate surveys – one to research the rates of attrition in Massachusetts law firms from 2002 to 2004, and one to research the individual career decisions of men and women from 2001 to 2005.
Harrington and Hsi explained that both men and women cited long work hours, workload pressures and difficulty integrating family time into their schedules as rationale for leaving firm practice; however, women have more difficulty in combining work and family than men. The reasoning for this dynamic boils down to time, according to the survey results. “Sources of time are different for men and women,” said
Hsi. Hsi and Harrington explained that most men are with life partners who are less committed to work; women’s life partners are more equally committed to work; and women rely on work structure as a source of time.
According to the survey results, flexible work arrangements help women stay in the firm, but those who utilize flex-time are less likely to make partner. Hsi explained that a popular solution for dealing with this, as reported, was for women to leave the firm, but not necessarily the law or workforce in general.
Commission representative Lauren Stiller Rikleen, executive director of the Bowditch Institute for Women’s Success, followed the presentation of the findings to close the briefing. She covered many of the issues associated with women not succeeding to partner as easily as men and pointed to mentoring as one of the keys to improvement.
“We have too few role models,” said Rikleen, who explained that “data shows that women lack mentoring.” She pointed to workplace culture and leadership as being instrumental in bringing about necessary change.
Rikleen also mentioned that recruitment strategies need to more appropriately match the priorities of the candidates, and that it is critical to change the bias toward women that once they have children, they lack focus and commitment. The formal part of the program was followed by a question- and-answer session providing the opportunity for the audience to address the presenters.