If you’re worried about gender equality in Big Law, perhaps you should discreetly inquire about your boss’s political sympathies. And if your boss voted for Donald Trump or gives money largely to Republican candidates, you might consider hightailing the hell out of there.
I hate to make women more panicked than they might already be on the eve of the Trump era, but here’s the research: According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, the partner’s political ideology influences how he or she allocates discretionary income to female associates. In a nutshell, conservative managers tend to pay women less, while liberal ones pay them more.
The research covered almost 360 associates and their supervising partners at a 1,000-plus lawyer firm over a six-year period. Here’s how the study’s authors, Forrest Briscoe and Aparna Joshi of Penn State’s Smeal College of Business, describe what they discovered:
“Our findings revealed a gender gap in bonuses given to men and women that was minimal for partners at the liberal end of the ideological spectrum but much larger at the conservative end. Under the most conservative managers (those who only donated to Republican campaigns), men received nearly $5,000 more, on average, in annual bonuses than women.”
What’s troubling, write the authors, is that “these findings could not be explained away by differences in associates’ backgrounds or work efforts, including their billable hours.” In other words, it’s not because women tend to work part time or sneak out of the office early to pick up the kids. In fact, reduced-scheduled lawyers were not part of the data pool.
And what if the conservative boss is female? Sadly, female Republican partners were no more supportive of their female underlings than Republican men. Briscoe told me that about 10 percent of the partners in his study were women and that “there were no differences based on the gender of the bosses in their allocations of rewards.”
Also disturbing is that the bonus gap got worse over time, as women got closer to partnership. HBR reports:
“This effect was even greater for law firm associates who had more seniority and worked for conservative partners. Under the most conservative managers, experienced men received over $15,000 more in annual bonuses, on average, than comparably experienced women. In contrast, the gap was smaller for newer employees.”
To me, this seems counterintuitive. You’d think that a woman who stuck it out and had proved herself over the years would gain credibility with her superiors.
Not so with conservative bosses, say the authors. The problem, they indicate, is that performance evaluations are so subjective. “As [associates] shift to more challenging and higher-level assignments, the ambiguity around their performance increases, driving managers to rely even more on their own discretion,” they write. As the authors point out in their research paper, the traditional idea of masculine leadership—someone who’s “self-confident, assertive, aggressive and ambitious”—is still dominant, particularly with those who hold conservative beliefs.
We’ve been hearing a lot about unconscious bias over the years, but what’s striking about this study is the stark relationship between politics and the gender pay gap. “I am stunned that the study was able to separate out the possible impact of political beliefs on bonuses by liberal versus conservative supervising partners in a law firm,” says Karen Kaplowitz, an official with Legal Momentum, an organization that fights for gender equality. She adds that what’s needed is “more transparency in law firm compensation.”
More transparency. More mindfulness about unconscious bias. More attention to the gender gap in general. Will any of this be achieved in the Trump era, when indications are that it’s the retro macho ideal that is celebrated?
“Who knows?” asks Briscoe. “Perhaps the business and law firm leaders concerned with these issues will react to this political environment by stepping up their efforts to advance gender equality.”
We can only hope.
Contact Vivia Chen at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @lawcareerist.