Legal Business Blogs

Getting a grip on the ‘slippery ladder’ – Reed Smith’s Tamara Box on women and law

Imagine, in sequence, a football player, a surveyor, a figure skater and a managing partner of a law firm – all without gender association. Were you able to do that? Now imagine a carpenter. When you have that image settled in your mind, tell me the colour of her hair.

If you had a hiccup moment on the last pronoun, you’re not alone. A similar exercise was used by Gary Blasi, law professor emeritus at UCLA, to illustrate the gender-based hurdles that the mind must make in basic career-related situations. If you subconsciously picture a man as your firm’s leader, does that influence the actions you may take regarding the promotion of women?

For the past ten years or so, a spotlight has been shone on the dearth of female leaders in the legal industry. The ‘glass ceiling’ analysis of the eighties has been replaced by the ‘slippery ladder’ explanation of the 21st century: women voluntarily drop out of the partnership track at stages farther down the ladder, leaving the pool of available partner candidates to be disproportionately male. Yet that assumption is disingenuous. If women fall off the ladder or get stuck on a rung of it, it’s generally because the culture of partnership, just like the presumption of the gender of the carpenter, is male. And no mentoring, sponsorship or diversity programme is going to change a woman into a man.

Researchers have been trying to figure out why the legal industry has such a poor record on the progression of women. A synthesis of modern studies attributes male dominance in leadership to one or more unconscious stereotypes – stereotypes linking women to the home and family; stereotypes about women’s work styles, character traits and job competencies; and stereotypes about positions that are consciously or unconsciously perceived as male jobs.

For example, when a working mother leaves the office early, her colleagues may infer that she has a family obligation; when a working father leaves early, the same assumption is less likely to be made. A gender study by Joan Williams of UC Hastings claimed that some traits are perceived positively for men and negatively for women: assertiveness in a man is strength; in a woman it’s bitchiness. Similarly, social bonding behaviour among men is considered to be work related (he’s mentoring or rainmaking), but is considered to be frivolous among women (she’s chatting or gossiping). Until we sort out our paradoxical thinking, a meritocracy is impossible.

Perhaps the most pernicious stereotype for the legal industry is the one from the exercise in the opening paragraph: the idea that certain jobs are male. Williams further explains that when the leadership is predominantly male, ‘the setting will activate assumptions that associate competence with masculinity, thereby increasing the perceived competence of men’. The result of having a masculine organisational role stereotype is that male candidates appear to offer a better fit and are more likely to be selected.

Most of us are aware of the numerous psycho-social experiments done with identical CVs bearing either a female or a male name. Even in academia (where gender balance is better than in law firms), a CV with a male name will be judged by both genders to be more competent than the same CV with a female name. Curiously, evaluators will justify their selection by claiming that ‘his’ research is more insightful or his experience is more extensive, even though every word on the CV is identical.

Efforts to create gender-blind environments, however, have been counterproductive, in part because the unconscious stereotypes built up over a lifetime are not easily erased. Furthermore, an emphasis on political correctness restricts conversations that could dispel stereotypes; research shows that when two people avoid talking about their differences, their prejudices grow. But when forced to confront each other and explain their own personal stereotyping, individuals gain a greater appreciation for diversity and learn to respect the traits that are associated with the opposite gender. That’s important because we don’t want a law firm full of men and women who are just like them. We want a fully diverse team that values different characteristics and viewpoints.

We can do better. In what seems like a catch 22, we have to put more women into leadership roles in order to get more women into leadership roles. Making a policy choice for the purpose of implicit bias reduction is supported by sociological research: studies show that men and women who are exposed to strong female role models show significantly lower levels of bias.

Recognising our implicit bias may be the first step toward the creation of equitable promotional opportunities for women. We have to dispel the stereotypes if we are to ensure that future leadership is not overwhelmingly male, not gender-blind and not limited to half the talent pool.

Tamara Box is global chair of the financial industry group at Reed Smith.

For analysis of law firm’s initiatives to boost gender diversity see: The Target – will tougher measures finally boost gender diversity in the City?