At first glance, the overall mood seems undeniably upbeat: In our 2013 Midlevel Associates Survey, third-, fourth-, and fifth-years at the country's biggest law firms gave their employers the highest composite scores that we've seen in almost 10 years. Scores ticked up from last year in all 12 of the areas that we use to measure job satisfaction, including the interest level of the work, compensation, training, partner/associate relations, and billable hours. All terrific news, boding well for the profession, except this: In scrutinizing the data, we noticed a clear gender divide in how midlevels viewed their firms and futures.
For the first time, we decided to focus on how women and men answered our questions to better understand the sexes' differing associate experiences. In general, we found that men doled out higher scores in virtually every category of the survey, suggesting that they are more satisfied with the direction of their firms and their careers than their female counterparts. The genders also split when it came to priorities: Men expressed a greater desire to become a partner, while women often voiced uncertainty about staying on.
Men, for example, rated their firms higher than women on the issue of family-friendliness (3.95 versus 3.79 for women on our five-point scale). Overall, female associates tended to place greater emphasis on having more time outside the office and a better work/life balance. For instance, women were more apt to say they would gladly forfeit money for more personal time. When asked about their willingness to take a 25 percent cut in pay for a 25 percent reduction in billable time, women gave the idea a score of 3.22, while men gave it a 2.85.
Men, however, gave a higher score (3.40 versus 3.13 for women) to the importance of becoming a partner. Though only a small fraction of both men and women saw themselves as equity partners in five years at their current firm—which is telling in its own right—men still outnumbered women on this issue by a healthy margin (10.1 percent of men expect to be equity partners at their current firms, versus 6.5 percent of the women).
Indeed, men and women see their futures quite differently. Asked what they expect to be doing in five years, 27.7 percent of the men said they expect to be a partner (either equity or nonequity) at their current firm or elsewhere; only 19.2 of the women answered the same way. Although the gap has narrowed a bit since 2008 (when 35.4 percent of men and 22.0 percent of women answered that they expect to be a partner), it is still sizable. In 2013, more women (2.4 percent) than men (0.9 percent) thought they would go into public interest law, for example. Women also outnumbered men on this year's survey on the "I honestly don't know" option: 34.9 percent of women said they did not know what they would be doing in five years, compared to 29.0 percent of men.
There's also a noticeable divide between the sexes on the question of what would motivate them to leave their current firm for another job. By a sizeable margin (48.8 percent of women versus 36.3 percent of men), women said they would leave in order to achieve better work/life balance. Men, however, tended to give business or monetary reasons for leaving: 13.5 percent of them cited not making partner, while only 7.4 percent of women did so. By more than a 2:1 margin, men also gave making more money as a reason that would prompt their departure (6.4 percent of men versus 3.0 of women).
"Considerable evidence indicates that women place a higher priority on family time than do men, and that law firms have not responded adequately to their priorities," says Deborah Rhode, a professor at Stanford Law School. "Many firms are hemorrhaging talent as well as violating their own stated commitments to equal treatment, not just in principle but in practice."
So are women less ambitious about making partner because of their personal responsibilities on the home front? Possibly—but that doesn't seem to be the only explanation. (Though 88 percent of the women in our survey—versus 84 percent of men—are married or have a significant other, only 26 percent of the women have kids in the household, while 40 percent of the men have children at home.)
One reason that women seem less inclined to go for the brass ring is that they are skeptical about whether their firms are truly committed to promoting them. For starters, they note that a critical mass of female partners is still a rare sight. (According to sibling publication The National Law Journal, in 2012 women represented 15.1 percent of equity partners, and 18.8 percent of all partners—equity and nonequity—at NLJ 250 firms.) In the open-ended comments section of our survey, female associates at numerous top firms around the country lamented the dearth of women partners in their offices. Several female associates at the New York office of a California-based firm, for example, expressed incredulity that there was only one female partner in New York (in an office that has more than 100 lawyers). That sentiment was shared by an associate at the San Francisco office of another Am Law 100 firm, who wrote: "It is unacceptable to have an office without any female partners, [and] where no female associate has children."
Women are also concerned that there's an unspoken motherhood penalty at firms. Once they have children, they are treated differently and are no longer taken seriously, wrote a number of associates in the comments section. "Females in our office strongly believe that they cannot both make partner and have children," wrote an associate at a California-based firm. "The firm is constantly losing women, but partners seem befuddled as to why. The women have discussed their concerns internally, but there is no one they can trust to support them and convey their message in an effective way."
Joan Williams, a professor at the University of California's Hastings Law School, says those concerns are not unfounded. "When women return from maternity leave, they're perceived differently," says Williams. "The bias triggered by motherhood is a magnitude larger than that of the glass ceiling. We hear all the time that women who return don't get enough work to make their billables, and eventually leave."
The sense that those in charge are oblivious to the problems faced by lawyer-moms is echoed by an associate at a Wall Street firm who wrote in the open-ended comments section: "The partners who do not have families should have greater respect for the associate[s] who do. . . . Partners who evaluate associates for partnership track should not seek mere clones of themselves."
While female associates express dissatisfaction about the direction and policies of their firms, male associates tend to think that management is doing a fine job. Indeed, in some responses, men and women seem to view their firms through different lenses. The biggest disparity shows up on a question about whether their firms are doing enough to retain associates: 64.1 percent of the men said yes, while only 55.6 percent of the women did so.
Moreover, women gave their firms lower scores on diversity (3.95 versus 4.12 for men). In our comments section, women often talked about the need for diversity and greater female representation at the partnership level as interrelated issues. "We pay a lot of lip service to diversity but fall flat when it comes to delivering," wrote one female associate at a California-based firm. "The L.A. office does not have a single Hispanic or Latin attorney (in L.A!). And only one female partner across all practice groups."
There is, in fact, a deep well of frustration among midlevel female associates that firms aren't doing enough to keep and promote women. "I would love more diversity at senior levels, and a clear path for how to get there as a working mom," wrote an associate at a leading New York firm. "The firm has a collection of the best and brightest lawyers on the planet. If we can't solve the lean in/lean back whatever women's issues . . . who can? We need to make an effort."
In the meantime, though, more women seem less likely to stick around. For all the hype about how firms are working hard when it comes to promoting women, female midlevel associates don't seem to be buying it. These women should be the next generation of partners—the ones lifting the percentage of women partners. Trouble is, though, they aren't even staying in line.