From my experience, I don’t really think it’s that different a question from asking why women don’t make it to senior roles in business. Some law firms (I don’t believe all of them) have a bit of an approach to promotion that if you’re not devoting your life to work, then you don’t deserve promotion. But every investment bank I’ve ever seen in action is like that, and you never see articles about the dearth of women in investment banking. And many corporates are like that too. Accounting firms (at least in Australia) have a smaller proportion of female partners than law firms, but at least partly, that’s because partner is a more senior role in an accounting firm (law firms have, broadly, 1 partner for every five non-partner professionals, but accoutning firms aim for more like 1 in 10).
The most specific thing about the law (and more broadly, professional services firms) is that mentoring is very important – you learn by working with someone more senior than you, and you need to be chosen by someone to get that intensive training. But it’s only a matter of degree. Most successful business people will talk about the mentors they have learned from. It’s just more obvious that it’s necessary in a professional services firm.
Some of the commenters over at 11D suggest that the fault is with the women – they’re not ambitious enough, or view the hours they have to put in as a chore, rather than with excitement.
My view is that the causes are complex (of course!)
- in an environment when there are few senior women, it’s hard for women to get good mentoring, as both men and women are often more comfortable mentoring someone of their own sex (if I look at the people I have mentored informally over the past five years, the majority have been women, even though my junior colleagues have been more often men)
- in any career, but particularly professional services, the big demands in terms of hours often come in your late 20s early 30s – many women are thinking about children at that age, more than men, and not sure they are willing to put in that time, so they consciously or unconsciously reduce their ambition
- simple sexism shouldn’t be ignored. Just as men are more likely to pick men as the talented up-and-comers to mentor, they can be more likely to rate other men highly in performance appraisals. Particularly, they can be likely to assume a man has ability without strong evidence, while women generally have to show stronger evidence of their ability. I realise this one is a strong statement, but I’ve watched it happen a lot.
So is there hope? I think there is a tipping point, where there are enough women that the mentoring and sexism issues above reduce substantially. The senior women don’t feel so outnumbered that they have to be “one of the boys”, and are able to make a difference. Probably about 25% is enough. In my experience, at that point, I don’t feel like an outsider any more.
And the companies that get there earlier will have a competitive advantage, as they will have a bigger talent pool to choose from.