Women have faced a struggle to gain acceptance as professionals in many sectors of the economy. For instance, in 1980 there were no female senior executives among Fortune 500 companies. And even today, only about 4 percent of the 200 top U.S. law firms have female, firm-wide managing partners.

But the outlook is changing. Claudia Zeisberger, academic director of Insead’s Global Private Equity Initiative, predicts in a recent article that there will be a major shift with women increasingly being among the candidates who fulfill requirements for job vacancies. She calls it an “explosion” of talent.

Already, women made up about 18 percent of the senior Fortune 500 executives in 2011 “and, given enough time, this progress will catch up with contemporary, gender-egalitarian attitudes,” she said in the article. “It’s time for companies and their shareholders to recognize this demographic change and turn it into an opportunity.” 

But too often the society’s expectations for women are different. As Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg said, “Females are raised from birth to have different expectations. There’s an ambition gap, and it’s wreaking havoc on women’s ability to advance.”

In the past, some observers have followed the trend of women dropping off the career advancement ladder in corporations and elsewhere – described by analysts as the “leaking pipeline.”

That has been among the reasons for limited numbers of women at the top levels of companies. “This glass-ceiling effect has been attributed to various pressures, including unequal pay, the difficulty of maintaining work/life balance and male executives’ lack of faith in women’s professional competence,” according to Zeisberger.

In her understanding of the advancement of women up the career ladder, she also finds another key reason why corporate suites are male-dominated right now. 

Women previously got a lot less education than men in most locations. The current situation is better. In the United Kingdom, for example, the average women was in school for nine years – as of about 1970 – and that increased to more than 12 years.  Also, at the end of the 1950s, fewer than 10 percent of Chinese women were literate. Now in China, female literacy is close to 100 percent, and there are more than 3 million female university graduates each year. The increased education levels let women prepare for jobs that require more skills and university degrees. Now, U.S. women represent about half of law school students, and are about half of the associates in law firms, according to The Washington Post.

Increasing the education levels of women also leads to another trend. It “correlates strongly with the downward trend in fertility rates worldwide. As women make greater inroads into the world outside the home, they chose to raise fewer children,” Zeisberger said. She cites examples in India and in South Korea.

When it comes to the field of law, U.S. women lawyers are twice as likely as men to leave their jobs at law firms. The reasons include not meeting their desired work-life balance, The Post said. In a survey of law firm associates, women were more likely than men to give lower ratings to the culture of the firm, their job satisfaction and compensation level, the story adds. 

Nor does it help that women are facing judges and others who are giving them fashion advice – but little to men. “Male attorneys are advised to look professional, but the clothing choices of female attorneys are getting a lot of scrutiny,” Inside Counsel reported recently.

Many women in U.S. corporations also find the jobs they get are concentrated in certain areas. One example is compliance officers, and close to 60 percent of the Society for Corporate Compliance and Ethics’ (SCCE) members are now women, according to a recent article. Also, 72.7 percent of human resources managers were women as of 2012. 

The options open to women should be more far-reaching, and include the C-Suite. There are some ways that law firms – and in-house attorney teams – can improve the situation for female representation. There should be more flex-time and part-time work options. This would be particularly useful for women who choose to spend more of their time in the raising of children or may find they need to care for aging parents. New technology makes such work arrangements easier than ever.

One suggestion from Selena Rezvani, who has written widely on the topic, is that females should make up half of the membership on committees that make everyday decisions in law firms.

It also is very important that women, just like men, find a mentor who can help guide them through professional advancement. As more women make partners and managing partners in law firms, or take on the role of managing a corporate legal team, there will be more role models for newer female attorneys. 

In addition, law firms and corporate counsel offices may find some extra benefits by hiring women. Many studies show that women, more than men, prefer working in teams. 

In one recent study, by economists Peter J. Kuhn and Marie-Claire VillevalIn, it was shown how women had a “more optimistic assessment… of their prospective teammate’s ability.” Other studies have shown men prefer working alone “because men are overconfident in their own abilities and distrust their colleagues.” 

Having team players is certainly something that could benefit law firms and corporate counsel offices.

But there needs to be some attention paid to another issue. Some studies or anecdotes suggest that women often leave law school confident about themselves, but can lose that confidence as they progress further in the competitive field of law. In the general workplace, “research has suggested that women don’t work as well in competitive environments, even if their performance quality matches that of their male counterparts,” according to Kuhn and Villeval.

One has to remember, however, that the field of law, by its very nature, will be a competitive environment. It is a given that one side needs to win a case against another. One law firm needs to land a promising client before other firms. Law firms highly value attorneys who can bring new clients into a firm, and consider that ability when promoting associates to partners. But if some attorneys, whether women or men, prefer working as a team to beat out their competition, it should be embraced.

When a lawyer comes back to the office after winning a case, it would be a source of pride to the office as a whole if she/he could announce to others not “I won the case” but “We won the case.”


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