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Maybe it’s where I’m situated, but it seems that the diversity drumbeat is getting louder. Granted, I’ve been beating that particular drum for years, but I’m starting to feel like my section of the orchestra is getting ever closer to a crescendo. Take, for instance, the Houston Bar Association’s current gender initiative. So far, 23 firms and legal departments have signed the Bar’s pledge to increase the number of women partners, women in firm management and networking opportunities for women. And the pledge these firms are signing isn’t a vague “we promise to do better.” It asks for “an approximate pro-rata percentage of women partners that reflects the proportion of women at the experienced attorney level (10 years or more) in the law firm.” Just about every major firm with an office in Houston has signed it, including the firm I work for. What impresses me more than the mere existence of the initiative is the fact that it just doesn’t seem to be all that controversial. It’s almost as if the idea that women should occupy positions of leadership at major firms is a given -� which, of course, it is. The push to promote women into positions of authority has become more about the bottom line than about doing what’s right. But, as is usually the case, doing what’s right just happens to be good business. The biggest reason there are so few women partners is that women quite simply don’t stay in “the pipeline” long enough to be up for partner � attrition, in other words. As any economist can tell you, though, it costs less to hold onto a good employee than it does to find a new one and get him or her up to speed. It turns out there’s another reason to keep and, more importantly, promote women: According to Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit devoted to the advancement of working women, companies with the highest percentage of women on top management teams financially outperform companies with the lowest percentage. There’s no reason to believe that the same wouldn’t hold true for firms. And in a profession in which partner profits dictate which firm keeps the rainmakers, financial performance is key. Granted, Catalyst doesn’t claim that women are the reason those companies perform better -� and their finding could just be a statistical anomaly -� but I’ll take my good news where I can get it. So, the drive by firms to keep women in the fold has come down to simple economics, and that’s fine by me. Why Women Leave But now that firms want to keep female lawyers, the question is whether women want to stay. It turns out that the reasons women leave the profession are as varied as the women themselves. Two reasons, however, predominate: work/family conflicts and discrimination. The discrimination part of the equation, however, isn’t nearly as pervasive or insidious as it was when our mothers’ generation entered the profession. It hasn’t been erased from the workplace, certainly, but most women who have been practicing for a while will tell you that the profession has come a long way since the days when women lawyers could only get interviews for secretarial jobs. Work/family conflicts, however, pose more difficulties. Few women will risk their own or their children’s well-being for the sake of making partner. Go figure. Now, plenty of women with children stick it out, and they are neither bad mothers nor superhuman. Speaking as someone who has continued to work full-time since the birth of my son, I chalk it up to an excellent nanny, a supportive husband and the ability to get by on little sleep. Study after study -� by firms and the corporate world -� show that women would gladly trade money for flexibility. And although firms have been slow to implement flexible work arrangements, they are coming around. Perhaps it’s time for more firms to offer them �- and to do so without the implicit message that it’s career suicide �- and for more women, and men as well, to take them up on it. That brings us to another issue: Women are loath to ask for “special” arrangements. Frankly, women just aren’t good at asking for much of anything, be it raises, promotions, challenging projects or “special” work arrangements. A new book, “Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide,” lays out this problem quite thoroughly. Although the book, by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, focuses on the economic gap between men and women, the message is clear: Women don’t negotiate as forcefully as their male counterparts. “Women Don’t Ask” cites the economic disadvantage women suffer when, for example, two college graduates get job offers for $25,000. The male negotiates his offer up to $30,000 and the woman takes the $25,000. During the course of their careers, the man’s extra earnings would total $361,171, and that’s assuming the two get identical raises for the remainder of their careers — which is doubtful, given the woman’s initial reluctance to negotiate and the man’s ease at doing so. While $361,000 is a lot of money, it pales in comparison to the more likely scenario: The woman, frustrated by her inability to juggle her work and family obligations and too afraid to ask for a more flexible work arrangement, leaves the work world altogether. While many would argue that her family is better off for her sacrifice, few would say it was a wise economic move on her part. It appears her employer didn’t come out ahead either, given the cost of finding another employee and the loss of a potentially talented upper manager who could have contributed greatly to the company’s overall financial performance. We all have something to gain by keeping women in the profession. We just need to get our heads together and find a way to actually do it. Kathleen J. Wu is a partner in Andrews & Kurth in Dallas. “On the Level” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.

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