Structural, cultural biases derail long-term careers of female lawyers in US – study

Study respondents named lack of opportunity and unequal compensation among the barriers they experienced

Structural, cultural biases derail long-term careers of female lawyers in US – study

Structural and cultural biases are among the factors that keep female lawyers in the US from building long-term careers, according to a study conducted by the American Bar Association (ABA).

Respondents said that the cumulative effect of several factors lead to their exits from the firms and organisations for which they worked – or from the profession altogether even though they had been in practice for 15 years or more. Some of the most common factors cited were:

  • pay disparities (both real and perceived)
  • sexist and racist behaviour
  • being passed over for promotion

“You give me the hardest problems to solve, but you tell me I am less important with the compensation you give me,” one respondent said.

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Respondents said that gender bias lay at the root of the inequal compensation, which in turn affected the availability of leadership opportunities. As a result, one respondent said, she did not feel like she had someone in the position of power to relate to personally.

“[T]he power dynamic is very real. …. [P]eople are very uncomfortable when women lean into their power,” another respondent said.

Opportunities were especially limited among women of colour, the study found. Two Black respondents pointed to what they called “the stay in your line” phenomenon, which is intended to derail successful women of colour.

“I literally had somebody on our management board say, ‘You know what? You’re winning too many awards and attracting too much attention to yourself’,” one respondent said.

Respondents also experienced structural and cultural biases through existing business development credit award systems and the hyper-competitive culture prevalent in many law firms. Moreover, another respondent said that all of the female lawyers she had befriended had, without exception, experienced “some form of discrimination.”

To improve the retention of female lawyers within law firms, the study made the following recommendations:

  • assess the impact of firm policies and practices on women lawyers
  • take steps to ensure there is a critical mass of women partners on key firm committees
  • increase lateral hiring of women partners
  • provide resources to relieve pressures from family obligations that women more often face than their male colleagues
  • be flexible to support changing practices

The ABA study’s findings are detailed in a report entitled In Their Own Words: Experienced Women Lawyers Explain Why They Are Leaving Their Law Firms and the Profession. The respondents were sourced from 12 focus groups composed of female lawyers located in six cities. Interviews were also conducted with 12 individuals.

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