You don’t hear much about role models anymore, and I think that’s a big mistake. These days, the career must-have is a “sponsor” or “mentor” (though the term “mentor” seems to be slipping out of favor in corporate-speak).
I might be dating myself, but I think having a role model—someone who “looks” like you, whom you’d like to emulate—is the baseline.
When I was a young associate in the 1980s, I had no role models. None. I vaguely remember a female partner in tax, but our paths never crossed. As for Asian American partners—that would have been as rare as finding an exotic bird in the middle of Times Square.
I’m not saying that having a role model would have changed the course of my career. But I do believe that seeing someone that you can identify with matters. Seeing is believing—and a vital first step to encouraging women and minorities to stay on for the long haul.
You might assume that role models aren’t quite so relevant now because there are female partners and diverse partners in virtually every major law firm. But that assumption is not always correct.
That point was driven home to me when I was writing my article about the attitudes of midlevel associates for The American Lawyer (“Associates Survey 2013: The Great (Gender) Divide“) earlier this fall. What I found was that young women in Big Law often felt discouraged about their own careers if there was a dearth of female partners at their office.
In particular, women at two firms voiced this frustration: O’Melveny & Myers and Ropes & Gray (11.28 and 20.72 percent female equity partners, respectively). In the comment section of the TAL survey, several female associates at O’Melveny’s New York branch noted that there’s only one female partner in an office of over 100 lawyers (there are 33 partners in New York). When asked what they’d like to change about the firm, several commented: “More female partners.”
Some of the women at Ropes’s San Francisco office were equally infuriated about the lack of female partners there. One female associate wrote: “It is unacceptable to have an office without any female partners, [and] where no female associate has children.” (The firm’s website lists one female partner and 15 male partners in the San Francisco office, though she’s also listed as a Boston-based partner).
Both O’Melveny and Ropes acknowledged the paltry number of women partners in those offices, and both vowed to do better. O’Melveny’s spokesperson emailed me: “We expect to have more [female partners in the New York office],” while also noting that the firm has several programs aimed at retaining women. Ropes partners Jane Goldstein and Colleen Conry emailed me: “We are proud of our record in recruiting and promoting women at Ropes & Gray, and we continue to focus on doing even better across the firm, including offices like San Francisco.” They also noted the firm’s success in elevating women to partnership in recent years and other markers.
I have no reason to believe that either firm is treating women unfairly. Indeed, both firms are often mentioned as one of the best places for women in publications such as Working Mother. My point is this: No matter how hard firms are trying to promote women, the virtual absence of female partners on the local level speaks for itself. And what that says is that female partners are anomalies, if not total aberrations.
So before firms tout their wonderful programs for women—sponsorships, networking opportunities, work-life balance initiatives or whatever—they need to look first at the obvious. If your firm has a hard time even coughing up a modest number of female partners, can you really be shocked when young women bail out?