The Old Boys’ Network Is Alive and Well

In the next month tens of thousands of women will enroll in graduate school with the goal of being hired in male-dominated professions. They may want to work in finance, engineering or law (to name just a few of these fields). I wonder if these eager students truly understand the ramifications of such a career.

I do.

After graduation from law school, I joined one of the country’s oldest and most well-regarded law firms. Despite having hundreds of lawyers in offices around the world, it had only one female partner at the time. Seven and half years later I, too, joined their ranks. Being a woman in this hard-charging world had consequences large and small. All aspects of appearance became an issue. The advent of scaled-down versions of men’s suits sold in the early 1980s provided a safe haven. The style even included high-collared blouses with “ties” that were inch-wide strips of material that clipped around the neck and were often embellished with a single fabric flower. We women imitated the male norm with the goal of making everyone more comfortable.

However, the popularity of women’s pantsuits triggered a strange backlash in the late 1980s by male rule-makers. They resented women abandoning skirts, the traditional symbol of submission and easy sexual access. I was banned from powerful private clubs where masters of the universe cut deals because I was wearing a pantsuit. In a demented attempt to help misguided women foolish enough to make commit this fashion faux pax, one establishment offered me a wrap-around gingham skirt that I could don over my slacks and thereby gain entrance to the power brokers’ dining room.

While fashion standards have relaxed somewhat, women’s dress is still an issue. Recently, a Tennessee judge imposed a dress code on women appearing in his courts. No bare arms. Sleeveless dresses were verboten despite the heat of summer. After all, a man would never try that. Even women lawyers who work in conference rooms are cautioned about wearing peep-toe shoes or too much cleavage. One expert goes so far as warning, “Cleavage could sidetrack a legal career”.

Deciding what to wear on the job is an issue women confront every day, but the workplace issue that transcends all else is advancement. How is performance measured? Unfortunately, when a woman’s performance is evaluated, she tends to be judged more harshly than her male peers in traditionally male-dominated fields.

In a recent example from Big Law, a major Wall Street law firm commissioned a consultant to evaluate its associate review process, agreeing the results could be disclosed as long as the firm wasn’t identified. The consultant studied 268 written lawyer evaluations and found that men and women whose work quality was described similarly in narratives received different numerical scores with the men ranking higher. Overall, a significantly higher percentage of men (14%) received evaluations in the top category than women (4.76%). Numbers had greater significance than narratives in partnership decisions with the result that males were three times more likely to become partners than females.

In a shocking denouement to this study, the consultant reported that when she presented her conclusions to firm management, they declined to make any of the changes suggested, changes that included training to make the partners more aware of gender bias. According to the consultant, the firm

was getting dinged as one
of the worst places for women to work, [but] their philosophy was that there will always be people who are willing to break their backs to work here.

Even when women succeed, the male norm remains the yardstick. At my Big Law firm, I was the first female partner to be awarded a bonus under a new compensation system that embraced financial rewards. When the male member of the bonus committee told me of this recognition, he said:

We consider you an ideal young partner – not just a female partner. You’re an ideal for any young partner.

Glad for the bonus but furious at the implication, I said, “You aren’t suggesting that there is a different, lesser standard for female partners, are you?” He blanched and waved away my response with muttered denials and more than a touch of umbrage.

This was a classic example of the double-bind dilemma for women. My comment was assertive – the type of comment I think Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement would advocate – but was perceived as too tough. A man would have been applauded for his forthrightness. In a male-dominated field, a woman is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. This is the price of working in the old boys’ clubhouse.

(This article was originally published in The Guardian on August 19, 2013)


Planning an Office Holiday Party? Skip the Mistletoe.

Published in The Huffington Post November 20, 2012

Delighted that his company has had a good year, the boss plans an extravagant holiday party with an open bar. After celebrating with the staff for a couple of hours, he excuses himself and returns dressed as Santa. Employees applaud, but when he invites an attractive analyst to sit in his lap, she declines with a scowl. Feeling festive and a bit tipsy, he tugs her hand and urges her again to take a seat. She stomps off and, within days, files a sexual harassment complaint.

This scenario spawned an actual lawsuit, one of the hundreds arising from office parties. Regardless of where it’s held, a company-sponsored party becomes an extension of the workplace and workplace rules apply. As such, it can be a minefield of employer liability.

The relaxed atmosphere of a holiday celebration coupled with alcohol consumption creates a setting where a party-goer may try to get inappropriately friendly with a co-worker. That pretty woman from accounting might look especially lovely in her holiday outfit and, with alcohol-lowered inhibitions, someone may make a pass. If suggestive words are spoken or offensive gestures are made, there will be a whole roomful of people who can act as witnesses for the plaintiff.

Here are a few suggestions to keep the inhibitions in place and to minimize the risk of liability.
Serve alcohol-free “mocktails” instead of cocktails. Or if that’s too extreme, serve only beer and wine — no distilled liquor. If any alcohol is behind the bar, employers can provide “drink tickets” with a limited number given to each employee. In addition to deterring sexual misconduct, limits on alcohol can also protect the employer from dram shop liability arising from a drunken employee’s actions after leaving the party. Taxi rides should be provided by the company if a guest overindulges.

Employers should also serve substantial food along with any alcohol to lessen the effect. Some believe fatty, starchy food is the most beneficial in this regard. Stay away from salty snacks that will increase the desire to drink.

Although music and dancing can add to the festivities, they also carry the risk for improper and unwelcome touching. Other considerations are the time and location of the party. An evening gala in a flashy locale is more likely to be the setting for sexual harassment. A better choice is low-key and late afternoon when people’s minds are still in a work mode. Another deterrent to sexual harassment is inviting the spouses of employees. Each husband and wife will have a personal enforcer!

A memo circulated the day of the party could also help establish the tone by reminding employees it’s an occasion for business colleagues to celebrate the company’s performance in a joyful, but professional and respectful manner. The message can be underscored by adding that conduct consistent with the employer’s policies is expected. It is especially important that supervisors understand these constraints because employers are liable for supervisor harassment of an employee with less power or authority. (Employers are liable for harassment of one employee by another of equal rank if the employer is aware of it. In a party setting, open harassment visible to all would meet this standard.)

If a complaint arises about conduct at the party, the employer should investigate it promptly. Remember those witnesses!

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5 Concrete Steps to Shut Down the Office Lech

By Kate McGuinness
Published in Forbes, June 18, 2012

Women law school graduates should be warned that law is a sexist profession.

Sexual discrimination is widespread and sexual harassment occurs all too often.

He’s Persistent, Offensive and Powerful

Here’s a recent real life example of sexual harassment told by an associate’s therapist: A partner in a one-on-one meeting with a female associate leans over and says, “I’d really love to kiss you right now.”

Then he barrages her with e-mails about how hot she is. Click to continue reading “5 Concrete Steps to Shut Down the Office Lech”

Do Sexual Harassment Lawsuits Chill Opportunities for Women?

Published in Fem2.0 June 6, 2012

Ellen Pao

Woman who sued venture capital firm for sexual discrimination

Recently, Ellen Pao, a junior partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, sued the firm charging widespread discrimination against women. She also alleged that she had been sexually harassed and suffered retaliation after she complained about the harassment.

Bloomberg published an opinion piece by Amity Shlaes criticizing Ms. Pao’s suit for a variety of reasons. One was that venture capital firms contribute greater economic growth because they are more “creative” and “wild” with a different culture than square “dinosaurs.” Although she acknowledges that “creative rebels have often behaved poorly in their creative workplaces,” her argument seems to be that discrimination and harassment should be overlooked if they take place in a company that generates growth.

Click to continue reading “Do Sexual Harassment Lawsuits Chill Opportunities for Women?”

Lawyer Diaries: Women’s Rights Writer

Published in LSAT Blog: Lawyer Diaries: Women’s Rights Writer, April 15, 2012
Article by Kate McGuinness

Lawyer Diaries is a new semi-regular feature on LSAT Blog where current and former lawyers will share their experiences. The first is from Kate McGuinness, a lawyer with a long and varied legal career who is now a full-time writer.

Terminal Ambition bookLike many woman of “a certain age” (let’s say baby boomer), I became a teacher out of undergrad. That was a predictable career path for smart women in 1970s.

Unlike most of my peers, I chose to teach in schools on U.S. military bases in locations where English was not the language of instruction. I opted for bases in Puerto Rico to escape the weather in the Northeast.

After four years, I moved to San Diego (still following the sun). However, I arrived during a recession and couldn’t find a teaching job. After all, the school district didn’t know the folks from Puerto Rico who’d given me glowing recommendations – as if they would know the sources if I’d worked in Arizona!

Click to continue reading “Lawyer Diaries: Women’s Rights Writer”

Women Battle Law Firm Bias

Published in Ms. JD 1/10/2012 and Role / Reboot 11/26/2011

Gender diversity is good for business. As a 2010 McKinsey Global Survey reported, 72 percent of executives “believe there is a direct connection between a company’s gender diversity and its financial success.” The study also noted that companies with the greatest gender diversity had better than average operating results and returns on equity. Yet, despite these monetary benefits and legal prohibitions on sex discrimination, women have yet to make significant inroads in the power structure and profit sharing at BigLaw.

Admittedly, law has been a male-dominated profession for centuries, but females have provided much of the brainpower since the 1980s. Thirty years of acclimatization has done little to convince the old boys who run these clubs that women deserve full membership in proportion to their representation among the worker bee associate class.

Click to continue reading “Women Battle Law Firm Bias”