Insight

Equal to the Task

Fighting for gender equity in the law firm can seem like the very definition of a thankless task. But you just might find yourself able to make great strides.

Gender Equity in the Workplace
JE

Joyce D. Edelman

June 26, 2020 08:00 AM

Early in my career, a white male lawyer told me my naturally curly hair wasn’t going to cut it in law. There was something about it that had him convinced no one would take me seriously. A recent graduate of West Virginia University College of law, thrilled to have my first job, I was crushed.

The legal industry has come a long way from the days of policing the way women look and act. At Porter Wright, an AmLaw 200 firm with eight offices in the Midwest and Florida, we recently announced the first woman in firm history to be named chief operating partner, Deb Boiarsky. We also have more women than ever in our partnership and leadership ranks; six women were promoted to practice group chair or co-chair in the past six months. Our Women’s Leadership Initiative is active in working to help our women attorneys succeed in the business of law not only with internal programs and mentoring, but also in engaging and partnering with leaders outside the firm.

"From 2007 to 2017, the number of female lawyers in the U.S. increased by a mere 2.6 percent, according to the Vault/MCAA 2018 Diversity Report."

More than ever, firms see that working toward gender equity makes a difference in retaining quality talent and improving attorneys’ work satisfaction. A more diverse legal team brings a variety of ideas to the table, enabling firms to better innovate and work with clients to reach their goals. A 2018 survey of AmLaw 200 firms from the National Association of Women Lawyers showed that women make up 25 percent of firm leadership and 22 percent of managing partners.

Despite the progress that these numbers show, they’re not changing fast enough. From 2007 to 2017, the number of female lawyers in the U.S. increased by a mere 2.6 percent, according to the Vault/MCCA 2018 Diversity Report. That same report showed the number of women partners increased by only 4.8 percent. The number of partners who are women of color increased by a mere 1.5 percent. In addition, the Major, Lindsey and Africa 2019 Millennial Attorney Study showed 45 percent of women strongly agree that law firm culture is sexist.

This stunted growth may not be surprising to women lawyers reading this article, but it still feels extremely discouraging. This is all the more reason to continue efforts to advance gender equity. As someone who has spent my career in law and, specifically, in the male-dominated space of litigation, I’ve learned a few things about challenging the unconscious bias women in the legal industry encounter every day. Whether you’re at a firm or working in-house, there are questions you can pose to determine if your organization’s culture, policies, procedures, and practices are indeed gender-equitable. Take a close look at your firm or company—and if you find yourself underwhelmed by the answers to these questions, it may be time to take action.

Is Your Workplace Gender Equitable?

  • Are your leaders, women and men, active advocates of gender diversity and gender equity?
  • Is gender equity widely acknowledged as a company priority and core value?
  • Are there proactive communications within your organization about gender equity?
  • Has your organization succeeded in promoting women into leadership positions?
  • Has your organization successfully retained experienced women?
  • Has your organization set specific targets for achieving gender equity?
  • Does your organization suffer from the “broken rung” (i.e., women getting stuck at entry level)?
  • Does your organization conduct unconscious/implicit bias training?
  • Are employees encouraged to flag bias when they see it?
  • Are women given “office housework” more than men?
  • Are women given the same complex assignments and opportunities to succeed?
  • Are working mothers supported? How? Are there family-friendly policies in place?
  • Does your organization suffer from “pinkwashing” (i.e., is it all talk, no action)?
  • Is there a gender pay gap? Is there transparency on how to get to the next step?
  • Are women included in informal gatherings—golf outings, drinks, client events?

If your answers to those questions felt discouraging, there are some concrete actions you can consider to start to make some significant change at your firm or company.

Bias Training:

Unconscious or implicit bias is the idea that people can be prejudiced toward a person or group of people without intending to be. Many organizations offer bias training to combat negative gender stereotypes. There are also some great online resources including Harvard’s Implicit Bias Test and the virtual-reality experience from Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, “1000 Cut Journey.” These can all help identify areas of self-awareness that can make a significant impact.

Expansion and Enhancement of Firm Programs and Policies:

I recommend that firms take a closer look at the policies and programs they offer to ensure they are fair and unbiased. Gender-neutral parental leave, diverse recruitment, and unbiased criteria for evaluation, promotion, and compensation should all be reviewed closely through a gender lens.

Accountability:

We know that many things can’t truly be measured in numbers, but it is important to gather data. Take a look at the information you can collect and look at the progression (or lack thereof) over time, including attrition, promotion, work assignments, compensation, and bonuses. Porter Wright joined the third cycle of the Mansfield Rule Certification Program, which aims to increase representation of not only women, but also lawyers of color, LBGTQ+ lawyers, and lawyers with disabilities, in firm leadership. A program like this forces you to start collecting data your firm may not have gathered before and begin looking at numbers in a way leadership might never have considered. Our firm is also a member of a consortium of five law firms in Columbus, Ohio, that work to tackle issues of gender equity in the legal industry. Seeing what your colleagues and competitors are doing can be great barometers of progress, as well as incentives to improve.

Affinity and Ally Groups:

Providing an opportunity for attorneys and staff with a shared characteristic or life experience to gather fosters a diverse and inclusive workplace. At Porter Wright, we are home to three of these groups: our Women’s Leadership Initiative, our Diverse Attorneys Network, and our Equality Alliance for attorneys and staff who are LGBTQ+ or allies. These are led by firm leaders and provide channels for the groups to network, develop business, create mentor/mentee relationships, and communicate their needs to senior management.

"It's important to continue to challenge the status quo, work to solve the issues that may be holding women back at your firm or company, and use your voice to advocate for those who may not realize yet that they have one."

Soliciting Feedback:

Consider collecting feedback on the firm’s culture through an anonymous survey, asking specific questions about gender equity in exit interviews, and creating a channel to levy anonymous complaints. Provide your attorneys and staff a safe space to be honest and help address these issues.

Because you must tackle gender equity from many different angles and progress can be slow, the problem can feel insurmountable. But this work is a marathon, not a 5K. It’s important to continue to challenge the status quo, work to solve the issues that may be holding women back at your firm or company, and use your voice to advocate for those who may not realize yet that they have one.

Years ago, I didn’t stand up for myself to that partner who told me to change my hair. His criticism went deeper than just my appearance; it was indicative of the age in which women in law were not the decision makers. They were the coffee getters, the copy makers, and the researchers. Today, I am a partner with a successful product-liability defense practice, and I chair our firm’s Women’s Leadership Initiative. I turned my passion and commitment—and sometimes frustration—into taking action for gender equity.

Now it’s your turn.

Joyce Edelman is a litigation partner at Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP in Columbus, Ohio. She has more than 30 years' experience representing clients in a variety of industries in high-exposure civil litigation. She chairs the life science subgroup of the firm's Product Liability Practice Group as well as the firm's Women's Leadership Initiative.

Headline Image: ISTOCK / M-IMAGEPHOTOGRAPHY

Related Articles

High Court Merit


by Tracy Collins Ortlieb

In progressive legal circles, the name Robbie Kaplan has emerged as an omnipresent force for equal and human rights.

Q&A With Roberta Kaplan

Is It Live . . . Or Is It Virtual?


by Adrian L. Bastianelli III, Kevin J. O'Connor, Paulo Flores and Robert S. Peckar

Mediation via Zoom is just one of the legal-industry oddities the pandemic has wrought. Here’s a cheat sheet for how to make it work for you—and some thoughts on whether it’s here to stay.

Virtual Mediation

The State of Women Inventors


by Amanda Hermans and Kate Rockwood

What’s being done to improve the gender patent gap—and how attorneys can help.

How to Improve the Gender Patent Gap

Lecher Pays


by Ann E. Evanko and Katherine L. Wood

Can social change be sped up via legislation? A key provision of the recent tax-law overhaul, clearly written with #MeToo in mind, suggests it can.

Social Change Amid #MeToo

Women First Chairs


by Roberta D. Liebenberg

Roberta Liebenberg discusses her first-of-its-kind empirical study.

Women First Chairs

Crucial Alliances


by Jane E. Young

Workplaces everywhere have changed since the start of the pandemic in ways that can be highly beneficial to women. Here’s a road map for consolidating recent gains—and making the most of them going forward.

Woman at desk working with roadmap behind her

The Breadwinner


by Courtney E. Ervin

Two lawyers, one big life decision: How my husband and I are working to eradicate the stigma of putting my career first.

Silhouette of women in suit stands in the middle of equal scale

A Beautiful Mind: Motown Beginnings, Top Dealmaker


by Sara Collin

Motown scion Farah Fakir Cook has achieved her own stardom away from the klieg lights, helping clients navigate ever-changing currents in intellectual property and technology. One crucial topic looms especially large for her in the years ahead: How current law will contend with the rise of artificial intelligence.

Woman wearing pink suit standing against desk

Progress and Potential


by Michele M. Jochner

Women have undeniably made great strides in our profession in recent decades, but much remains to be done. What’s the current state of the industry, what lies ahead—and what do lawyers (male and female alike) say are the most important issues going forward

Watercolor image of person on a mountain looking at night sky

Top of the Mountain


by LaVon M. Johns and Patricia Brown Holmes

Making partner, ginning up huge business, earning peer respect and industry influence are laudable goals—but it’s important to pursue them methodically and mindfully. One dynamic duo who have reached the mountaintop show how it’s done.

Red flag sitting on the top of a mountain summit

Canadian Women in the Legal Profession: From Non-‘Persons’ to Chief Justices


by Sara Collin

We take an in-depth look at the challenges and optimistic future of women in the Canadian legal sector.

Canadian Women in the Legal Profession

Protecting Small Business Owners: Trial Experts Connick Law LLC Notoriously Successful with Fire Litigation


by Justin Smulison

When small business owners become the target of insurance companies in fire-related lawsuits, hiring a firm with a reputation for understanding the science of fire suppression trials can save their livelihoods.

Gold Indoor Sprinkler Heads on Red Background

Unwavering Dedication to Clients


by Best Lawyers

Trial attorneys Michael Lyons and Chris Simmons find motivation when the result means everything.

Trial Attorneys at Lyons & Simmons

Dan Sciano Renaissance Lawyer


by Justin Smulison

Tinsman & Sciano recently celebrated 50 years as greater San Antonio’s leading trial law firm for civil litigation and personal injury. Daniel J.T. Sciano obtained judgments for his clients in both Federal and State courthouses in 2021. A trial lawyer with many talents and diverse knowledge of the law.

Tinsman & Sciano Celebrates 50

The Future of Litigation Is Changing for Female Solicitors in the U.K.


by Catherine Baksi

The support of entire law firms, organizations and senior counsel members will be the key to encouraging female solicitors and positive change in the industry.

Changing Litigation for UK Female Solicitors

New Sheriff in Town on ESG


by Patricia Brown Holmes

Various regulatory agencies within the Biden Administration are stepping up enforcement of corporate malfeasance in the ever-trendy ESG space.

ESG Enforcement in the Corporate Environment

Trending Articles

How Palworld Is Testing the Limits of Nintendo’s Legal Power


by Gregory Sirico

Many are calling the new game Palworld “Pokémon GO with guns,” noting the games striking similarities. Experts speculate how Nintendo could take legal action.

Animated figures with guns stand on top of creatures

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in America Honorees


by Best Lawyers

Only the top 5.3% of all practicing lawyers in the U.S. were selected by their peers for inclusion in the 29th edition of The Best Lawyers in America®.

Gold strings and dots connecting to form US map

The U.S. Best Lawyers Voting Season Is Open


by Best Lawyers

The voting season for the 31st edition of The Best Lawyers in America® and the 5th edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch® in America is officially underway, and we are offering some helpful advice to this year’s voters.

Golden figures of people standing on blue surface connected by white lines

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers® in the United States


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers listed in the 28th Edition of The Best Lawyers in America® and in the 2nd Edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2022.

2022 Best Lawyers Listings for United States

How To Find A Pro Bono Lawyer


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers dives into the vital role pro bono lawyers play in ensuring access to justice for all and the transformative impact they have on communities.

Hands joined around a table with phone, paper, pen and glasses

What the Courts Say About Recording in the Classroom


by Christina Henagen Peer and Peter Zawadski

Students and parents are increasingly asking to use audio devices to record what's being said in the classroom. But is it legal? A recent ruling offer gives the answer to a question confusing parents and administrators alike.

Is It Legal for Students to Record Teachers?

2021 Best Lawyers: The Global Issue


by Best Lawyers

The 2021 Global Issue features top legal talent from the most recent editions of Best Lawyers and Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch worldwide.

2021 Best Lawyers: The Global Issue

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2023


by Best Lawyers

The third edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America™ highlights the legal talent of lawyers who have been in practice less than 10 years.

Three arrows made of lines and dots on blue background

The Upcycle Conundrum


by Karen Kreider Gaunt

Laudable or litigious? What you need to know about potential copyright and trademark infringement when repurposing products.

Repurposed Products and Copyright Infringemen

The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2024 Launch


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is excited to announce The Best Lawyers in Australia™ for 2023, including the top lawyers and law firms from Australia.

Australian Parliament beside water at sunset

Best Lawyers Voting Is Now Open


by Best Lawyers

Voting has begun in several countries across the globe, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe. Below we offer dates, details and answers to voting-related questions to assist with the voting process.

Hands holding smartphone with five stars above phone

Inflation Escalation


by Ashley S. Wagner

Inflation and rising costs are at the forefront of everyone’s mind as we enter 2023. The current volatile market makes it more important than ever to understand the rent escalation clauses in current and future commercial lease agreements.

Suited figure in front of rising market and inflated balloon

Wage and Overtime Laws for Truck Drivers


by Greg Mansell

For truck drivers nationwide, underpayment and overtime violations are just the beginning of a long list of problems. Below we explore the wages you are entitled to but may not be receiving.

Truck Driver Wage and Overtime Laws in the US

A Celebration of Excellence: The Best Lawyers in Canada 2024 Awards


by Best Lawyers

As we embark on the 18th edition of The Best Lawyers in Canada™, we are excited to highlight excellence and top legal talent across the country.

Abstract image of red and white Canada flag in triangles

Announcing The Best Lawyers in South Africa™ 2024


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is excited to announce the landmark 15th edition of The Best Lawyers in South Africa™ for 2024, including the exclusive "Law Firm of the Year" awards.

Sky view of South Africa town and waterways

Presenting the 2024 Best Lawyers Family Law Legal Guide


by Best Lawyers

The 2024 Best Lawyers Family Law Legal Guide is now live and includes recognitions for all Best Lawyers family law awards. Read below and explore the legal guide.

Man entering home and hugging two children in doorway