It’s not just less pay and fewer promotions. According to a recent survey of 2,827 lawyers, female lawyers, and especially women of color, are more likely than their male counterparts to be interrupted, to be mistaken for non-lawyers, to do more office housework, and to have less access to prime job assignments. The research was recently completed by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association. Here are some of the depressing results of the study along with suggestions provided by the study’s authors on how to get the bias out of your organization.
Female Lawyers Mistaken For Janitors, Administrators Or Court Personnel
Female lawyers of color were eight times more likely than white men to report that they had been mistaken for custodial staff, administrative staff, or court personnel, with 57% reporting mistaken identity. Over 50% of white women had also experienced this type of bias, while only 7% of white male lawyers were mistaken for non-lawyers. One female lawyer reported, “I have frequently been assumed to be a court reporter. In my own firm, I’ve been asked if I am a legal administrative assistant on multiple occasions, even after making partner.”
Female Lawyers Relegated To Do Office Housework
Not only are female lawyers mistaken for non-lawyers, but female lawyers end up stuck with more of the non-legal office housework. Office housework is made up of tasks like scheduling meetings, planning parties, and doing actual housework like cleaning up the food after a meeting. And the present study finds female lawyers are far more likely than their male counterparts to bear the brunt of this office housework.
Why do women do more of the office housework? Women are expected to be helpful and therefore tend to feel social pressure to volunteer for these tasks. Organizations are also more likely to assign women to these tasks, because women are more likely to agree to perform them.
Female Lawyers Penalized For Assertive Behavior Required By The Job
Although assertiveness and self-promotion are often needed to succeed in the legal field, women often feel that they must walk a tightrope. If they are too assertive, then they are criticized for not behaving in a ladylike fashion. If they are not assertive enough, then they are often seen as lacking the confidence needed to succeed. Study participants confirmed their experience balancing on this tightrope.
“In the past year, I’ve been called ‘overconfident’ and ‘not deferential enough’ by co-counsel, another Asian American female. It was extremely frustrating as I was finally starting to feel confident and assertive and direct—acting as any normal white male attorney in a law firm would. I was subsequently removed from that case,” described on study participant.
Another attorney in the study describes her performance reviews, “my only feedback is ‘you need to find your more feminine or softer side. You need to act more like a woman.’”
Female Lawyers More Likely To Be Interrupted
Female Supreme Court justices are more likely to be interrupted, with 65.9% of all interruptions on the court directed at the three female justices on the bench (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan). The same apparently applies to lawyers questioned in the present study with almost half of the female lawyers surveyed being interrupted in meetings, compared to only about a third of men. “White men don’t realize how much ‘space’ belongs to them or that they unconsciously feel that they own space. They frequently interrupt others, but if a woman on a conference call states her thoughts, she’s immediately criticized as interrupting,” described one female lawyer in the study.
Female Lawyers Paid Less Than Equally Qualified Colleagues
In one of the biggest findings of the study, women were much more likely than men to feel that they were not paid comparably to colleagues with similar qualifications and experience. Women of color described more pay inequity than white women, but both were far less likely than men to believe they were paid fairly. One female lawyer summed up, “One man was recently given a promotion because HR discovered he was being paid a lot more than me, with the same job title. So instead of increasing my pay, they promoted him to a higher title! Women can’t win in this environment.”
Female lawyers aren’t just perceiving that they are underpaid, they actually are underpaid. A national survey of law firm partners found that male partners earned a whopping 44% more than female partners.
Female Lawyers Penalized For Motherhood
Few men complain that they are not taken seriously at work after they become fathers, and research indicates that men often receive a fatherhood boost in their pay when they have a family. However, the female lawyers in this study often felt they were treated differently at work once they had children. Here’s how some female lawyers described it to the researchers:
“I was passed over for partner because I had a child. The two male attorneys who were hired at the exact same time as me, who had comparable prior experience, and same job responsibilities were made partner but I was not. When I asked why, I was told it was because I had given birth to a child.”
“The reality is that after you have children, you are treated differently and given less access to good cases, and therefore have less access to promotion.”
Eradicating The Bias At Work
As if it’s not bad enough to get paid less, have clean-up duty, and suffer frequent interruptions, female lawyers in this study also reported that they have fewer networking opportunities and less access to prime assignments then their male counterparts. And about a quarter of the female lawyers surveyed report that they have been sexually harassed at work. Although the bias seems to run through almost all aspects of work life for these lawyers, the study authors provide plenty of strategies to help eliminate bias in the law profession. The following five suggestions for eliminating bias at work were particularly compelling:
1. Use metrics. Keep track to determine if there are pay differences, difference in performance ratings, or difference in types of assignments given to different groups. In particular, organizations should examine if these metrics differ by gender, race or parents returning from leave. If your metrics reveal inequities in a particular department, help that department think through why there may be bias in their treatment of employees.
2. List hiring qualifications. In order to eliminate bias in hiring, organizations should write down exactly what qualifications are expected for a particular job. If qualifications are waived for a specific candidate, require an explanation of why they were waived—and keep track to see for whom requirements are waived to determine if there is any bias.
3. Define culture fit. Too often employees think culture fit is hiring people like themselves, or people they’d want to share a beer with after work. The problem is, this criteria often results in hiring bias. To eliminate this bias, the authors suggest defining what culture fit in your organization means, prior to the hiring process. As an example, Google defines their culture fit this way: “Googleyness: …enjoying fun, a certain dose of intellectual humility . . . a strong measure of conscientiousness . . .comfort with ambiguity . . . and evidence that you’d take come courageous or interesting paths in your life.”
4. Institute housework interrupters. To minimize women bearing the brunt of office housework, don’t ask for volunteers for these tasks. Instead, develop a rotation or ask administrative staff to help with these tasks.
5. Start mentoring programs. Establish a mentoring program to help all employees network and have access to guidance from more senior employees.
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