March is Women’s History Month, a month is dedicated to highlighting the contributions of women across the globe. The Washington State Bar Association is working to spread awareness of the accomplishments of women in the legal profession and barriers to their success.
The 2012 WSBA membership study data revealed that 45% of WSBA members are women and that new and younger attorney cohorts tend to be more diverse, bringing distinctive assets, needs, and perspectives to the profession. Women in the profession are younger than their male counterparts and have lower average incomes.
The professional barriers experienced by women in the profession are felt on multiple levels. Of the 8 diversity groups discussed in the study, women ranked third in most frequently encountering barriers in the profession. Social barriers were the most prominent for women. Professional barriers to advancement and opportunity characterized as conditions which limit access, exposure to clients, responsibility, training and receipt of a raise or promotion, were experienced. Mentoring was identified as a key component to experiencing job satisfaction and leading to career stability.
In a recent interview with the WSBA Diversity Team, WSBA President Michele Radosevich said,
We need to think about mentoring as giving people opportunities. Doing so doesn’t have to make our work difficult, it can make work easier.
Study data reveals that the journey towards gender equality in the work place continues. Mentorship is critical to the professional career trajectory. Mentors can offer insight, guidance, access and credibility. The presence of a mentor does not guarantee success, but the relationship can prove beneficial to increasing job satisfaction and securing a stable career. In a professional culture of high expectations and heavy workloads women experience higher levels of unemployment than men. If she cannot meet the professional demands of her employer what options exist for her; and if she meets those demands what has she sacrificed along the way?
Consider the impact of professional barriers on a female attorney who is also the primary parent/caregiver for her family. I recently read an article on Above the Law which reported that an attorney at a large Seattle law firm went into labor at work and subsequently gave birth with the assistance of an associate:
The mother, we hear, was due in the next week or so. According to our tipster, mom was hoping to maximize her hours before having to go on leave.
The archetype for women in our society is one of mother, nurturer and caregiver. A woman in the throes of birthing a child solidifies this archetype in ways that go beyond words. One wonders if the professional commitment and expertise of this attorney will balance the experience of being recognized for giving birth to her child at the firm? That question underscores the ongoing gender socialization of men and women. What advice would a mentor provide to an attorney in this situation? What tips would a mentor provide to equip the attorney with an effective yet professional comeback for the jokes, quips and innuendos that may be dropped her way?
Being a woman is not a deficit. Women continue to make great strides within the legal profession and organizations like Perkins Coie continue to intentionally support diversity and inclusion efforts both within their firms and in the community. Bob Giles, Perkins Coie President said it best:
There are no quick fixes. We must continue to forge ahead and apply the same thoughtfulness and problem solving techniques we bring to bear when facing complex legal problems.