Retaining & Engaging Women Professionals

Retaining & Engaging Women Professionals

A walk through the halls of the nation’s largest law firms will reveal a conspicuous absence of women’s names on the doors of corner offices. Only 4% of top leadership jobs in the largest 100 firms are held by women. A 2014 study by the National Association of Women Lawyers found that, in the largest 200 law firms, only 18% of equity partners and 29% of non-equity partners are women—rates that have been stagnant for about a decade. That same study found that nearly all larger firms (94%) felt that retaining women lawyers was a problem for the firm, and 31% reported that attrition is a major obstacle for women to advance to equity partner

Other types of legal organizations also struggle with gender diversity. Among federal judges, 80% are men and 80% of Fortune 500 General Counsels and law school deans also are men.

This shortage of women in the upper echelons of legal organizations cannot be explained simply by a pipeline deficit. This is so because, since the mid-1980s, more than 40% of law school graduates have been women. Additionally, in law firms, there is a pool of women candidates concentrated in the lower ranks: 47% of associates are women. Something is happening that culls out women along the path of law school graduation, early career positions, equity partnership, and top leadership positions. Indeed, women are leaving large law firms at about twice the rate of men.

Much of the organizational scholarship that studies workplace obstacles for women focuses on gender biases and overt discrimination. While those topics are very important, the full explanation of the attrition of women lawyers surely is more complex.

Anne takes a new approach. She inquires whether there may, in fact, be real gender differences that undermine women’s engagement at work and contribute to the higher attrition rate in law firms and other legal organizations. While most gender differences in abilities are so small as to be meaningless, research suggests that the same might not be true for patterns of motivation. Since the law firm model was constructed by men for men, it may be that firms have been molded to the shape of men’s motivational patterns. A question arising from the high attrition of women lawyers is whether the leadership style and work climate in large firms are less likely to satisfy women’s psychological needs and motivational patterns.

After investigating social science, evolutionary, and neurobiology research, Anne offers new theories and approaches to revamping law firm cultures to be more welcoming to women. Evidence suggests, for example, that intrinsic values, the experience of meaningful work, and caring relationships in the workplace may be stronger contributors to retention of women than men. Relying on this growing area of research, Anne can provide new ways to approach diversity and inclusion through consulting, speaking, or training workshops.