The national media reports that millennial women are not concerned with the advancement of women in the workplace, because they perceive that women have arrived. But is the media right? Do the statistics in the legal field back up the belief that women are now fully represented at the highest seats of our profession? Analysis of these questions requires a brief overview of the data gathered over the past 20 years on this topic, both nationally and in Ohio.
In 2011, a Special Committee of the Ohio State Bar Association issued a report on gender fairness in the profession (Ohio Report). The Ohio Report reviewed and revisited a 1993 report by the Ohio Joint Task Force on Gender Fairness. The Ohio Report analyzed publicly available data as well as the results of a statewide survey of 1,000 male and female legal practitioners, in all size firms. The survey reveals that female respondents, by a three-to-one margin, believe it is easier for men to practice law. Even in 2011, some of the personal experiences reported were shocking. One woman revealed, “I had a (male) judge once say when I stood up to do rebuttal argument, ‘Honey, in this court we let the ladies go first and last, just in case they change their minds.’” With the personal stories that were reported, the three-to-one margin is not surprising.
The Ohio Report also demonstrated that lawyers’ perceptions and attitudes relating to gender fairness in the workplace were different as between men and women. While 50% of male respondents said that women can expect to be treated the same as regards pay and compensation at law firms, only 14% of female respondents agreed with that statement. The same percentage of male respondents believed that women have the same opportunity for promotion and advancement as men, with only 11% of female respondents agreeing. An overwhelming percentage of men (73%) believed that if a person is competent, gender difference is less of an issue, while only 44% of women agreed with the same statement.
Moreover, these issues of perception are not limited to Ohio. The Florida Bar, for example, reported that in December 2015 – five years after the Ohio Report – 43% of women said they had experienced gender bias in their careers.2 One respondent said, “I have left a firm where I was told by the managing partner that I did not have to worry about making money and moving ahead because I would get married one day and will not have to worry about living expenses.”
But are these anecdotal perceptions of women lawyers correct? The Ohio Report unfortunately statistically indicated that in many ways they may be. An article published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1992 revealed that, of 16 large law firms in Cleveland, none had greater than 14% female partners but did have associates of over 40%.3 Now, nineteen years later, at the time the Ohio Report was published, 43.1% of female lawyers in Ohio were associates and only 18.5% were partners. Thus, it would appear that simply waiting for associates to move up the ladder is not a solution at the larger firms. The Ohio Report also provided that in 2008, female attorneys only earned some 80.5% of male attorneys’ wages, and revealed “unusually high” numbers in two areas – unmarried female lawyers (23%) and childless female lawyers (37%)
These numbers make clear that the pace of change is unacceptably slow for women in the larger firms. The National Association of Women Lawyers describes this problem as the “50/15/15/ conundrum” – for the past 15 years, 50% of law school graduates were women, yet only 15% of equity partners and chief legal officers were women4. In response to this problem, the National Association of Women Lawyers issued its “NAWL Challenge” in 2006. The goal of the NAWL Challenge was to increase the number of female equity partners, female general counsels and female tenured law professors to 30% within 10 years.
Unfortunately, the 50/15/15 conundrum remained with little improvement over the next 10-year span. As of 2015, the NAWL Challenge was only satisfied in one area – tenured law professors, who represent 37.5%. The percentage of female general counsels increased to approximately 23% for Fortune 500 companies. The biggest disparity remained in the law firm context, with only 18% female equity partners – a mere 2% increase from the National Association of Women Lawyers’ 2006 data. In face, the National Association of Women Lawyers estimated in 2015 that if the pace of progress over the past 10 years continues as it has women equity partners will not reach 30% until the year 2181. How discouraging. Thus far, all the measurements have demonstrated little to no movement. So let’s hope the millennials know something don’t and the statistics don’t support.
One question remains: Has the Cleveland legal community kept pace with this low rate of change or have we done better? Are the perceptions of women lawyers and the data any different than that of the Ohio report of five years ago? The Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association has been working to learn the answer to these questions. Over the last several months, our Bar has been gathering information from its members as to the current status of women in our legal community. In June, the CMBA Bar Journal will publish the results of its own comprehensive survey initiative on diversity in the profession, including gender diversity. The CMBA’s survey was launched in two parts. Phase I included surveys to 748 law firms, corporate legal departments, courts and public agencies seeking demographic and programmatic information related to diversity. Phase II of the CMBA project is a survey sent to over 8,500 individual lawyers, judges, paralegals and other legal professionals seeking information on perception of diversity and inclusion.
This is the most comprehensive information ever collected on the results of our Cleveland diversity efforts and the information collected will serve to provide us all with feedback on where we have been and where we need to go. Ideally, the numbers will show progress and if not progress, will provide us some road map to progress and an ability to measure improvement in the future.
1 Ohio State Bar Association Report and Recommendations of the Special Committee to Review Gender Fairness in the Legal Profession (September 2011).
2 The Florida Bar Results of the 2015 YLD Survey on Women in the Legal Profession (December 2015).
3 The Plain Dealer, August 25, 1992, p.3. Solov, Diane, “Top jobs in law firms elude women lawyers.”
4 Lauren Stiller Rikleen, Women Lawyers Continue to Lag Behind Male Colleagues, Report of the Ninth Annual NAWL National Survey on Retention and Promotion of Women in Law Firms (2015).