Women and Men Report Starkly Different Experiences at Big Law

The work experiences of women and men are vastly different within the nation’s largest law firms, according to a new study commissioned by the American Bar Association (ABA).

The study, which surveyed more than 1,300 participants from the nation’s 350 largest law firms, was designed to help retain women, who are leaving the law profession earlier in their careers and in larger numbers than men, according to an Aug. 3 article in The American Lawyer.

The greatest divergence emerged in questions about sexual harassment and gender bias.

  • Unwanted sexual conduct or contact? The answer was yes from 49% of women and 6% of men.
  • Demeaning communications? Yes, said 74% of women and 8% of men.
  • Mistaken for a lower-level employee? Yes, 81% of women reported. Not one man responded yes.
  • Denied a salary increase or bonus? Yes, reported 54% of women and only 4% of men, the study said.

The report also revealed significant differences in perceptions of advancement of women in Big Law between female partners and managing partners.

  • Are firm leaders “active advocates” for advancing women? Among MPs, 80% said yes while 61% of female partners agreed.
  • Do firms promote women into leadership positions? Three-quarters of MPs said yes versus 54% of female partners.
  • Is gender diversity a priority? Of the MPs, 79% said yes, while 54% of female partners answered in the affirmative.
  • Are firms doing a good job of promoting women into equity partnerships? Among MPs, 71% said yes while the number was 47% among female partners.

“The longer I do this, the more frustrated I have become that we continue to have to ask these same questions: Why are there so few women who make it to the level of equity partner? Why are there so few women on compensation committees? Why are there so few women managing partners?” said ABA president Hilarie Bass, who commissioned the study. “It really begs the question of what we need to do to have more women in these upper levels, if in fact almost half of women have left by the time they’re 50.”

The survey asked about men’s and women’s general level of satisfaction within Big Law to help answer the question of why women are leaving their firms. Again, the differences were wide.

  • Satisfied with compensation methods? Yes, said 69% of male partners versus 44% of female partners.
  • Satisfied with recognition received? Yes, said 71% of male partners and 50% of female partners.

For lawyers with more than 20 years of experience, the survey asked about home life responsibilities as well.

  • Do you arrange child care? Yes said 54% of women, but only 1% of men did so.
  • Do laundry? Yes, reported 42% of women and 8% of men.
  • Leave work often for their child’s needs? Yes, reported 34% of women versus 5% of men.

Stephanie Scharf, of Chicago’s Scharf Banks Marmor, said many of the suggestions will be aimed at changing law firms. She is chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and took part in conducting the survey.

“In looking at the parameters where women are much less satisfied than men, all of those factors are pretty much within the control of the law firm,” Scharf told the American Lawyer. “We did not see differences in opinion [between men and women], for example, on the challenge of your work or the individual responsibility of your work. I underline that because I do believe this is within control of the employers.”

The full report will be released around Labor Day.


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