I know some people cringe when I use the term “pink ghetto.” I’ve been told it’s degrading, misleading, misunderstood. Maybe it’s not a politically sensitive term, but isn’t that an apt description for low-prestige, low-paying practice areas where women lawyers tend to flock?
In case you missed the bulletin, here are the practices where women are in ample supply, according to our friends at ALM Intelligence:
• Family law
• Health care
All respectable practices, though arguably on the pedestrian side. Actually, to be blunt, these are the backwaters—at least in the elite circles of the profession. But according to Law.com, women represent about 60 percent of immigration practices, 48 percent of family law practitioners and 45 percent of health care groups in Big Law—assuming a major firm would even deign to house some of these departments.
In contrast, women are much scarcer in the more lucrative (and sexier) areas, such as banking, intellectual property and litigation. Women represent only 35 percent in litigation, 31 percent in banking, 27 percent in IP and 23 percent in M&A departments.
So here’s the question: Are women flocking to those low-rent areas out of choice or is there an invisible hand that steers them there?
The article suggests that women are making the choice. A partner at Seyfarth Shaw and a recruiter at Major, Lindsey & Africa are both quoted as saying that women want more control over their hours and that such practices as litigation and M&A make that daunting.
It’s hard to argue that female lawyers are gagged and forced into less-demanding career paths. Indeed, most insist that choice plays a big role in women’s ambitions.
“Many women don’t want the demands of a 24/7 practice where you have little control over your life,” explains a female partner in a big firm. Given that “the odds of success [in Big Law], for both male and female, are low,” women may regard a lower-key practice “as being a better route to success, or just may want a more manageable career,” she adds.
Then, there are the ties to traditional gender roles. “To the extent you accept that woman are still more likely to be the primary caregiver for the kids—admittedly this is debatable—then I think that self-selection plays a key role in explaining this disparity,” says a senior female associate with three kids.
Which leads to this sticky question: How much of this “choice” is truly choice?
We hate to say that highly educated, independent women are pressured into certain roles, but the implication is there. For instance, though the aforementioned female partner says, “It’s definitely self-selection. I don’t think it is actual sexism pushing them,” she also adds: “I think certain women feel more comfortable in fields that are less male-dominated because of the general fact that the business world is more male-dominated.”
A male partner at the same big firm wonders if women are put off by the testosterone-driven styles that dominate some practices.
“Some of it may be that women are more traditionally the peace makers, and burn-the-house-down litigation is just not them.”
It might be hard to pinpoint the exact reason why women go into certain practices, but gender stereotyping, in all its subtle forms, is at the heart, whether at home or at work. “Certainly sexism,” says the female associate with three kids. “I never underestimate the power of the old boys network.”
What’s often required for success in high-power practices, she adds, is “a certain level of alpha-male attitude still, unfortunately, and many women may not feel particularly motivated to deal with that.”
Ah, that old alpha male je ne sais quoi. Until it’s available to women in a bottle in a consumable form, can we say that there’s actually a choice?
Contact Vivia Chen at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @lawcareerist.