By Sherrie L. Phillips and Isabella T. Hosein
Retaining female attorneys is an important issue. Polls, surveys, reports, and articles have been conducted and written on this subject offering solutions. Businesses with more diverse employees have been shown to be more financially successful and the employees more satisfied and content with their firms.
One way to think about this is to think in terms of “ships” – three different types of relationships.
As with all problems, it is essential to understand and address the underlying causes of the issue. There are numerous reasons why female attorneys leave their firms, or the practice of law in general. Two of the most common and pervasive reasons given is the perceived pay gap between male and female attorneys, and the perceived gender bias within the legal practice. Of course, outside commitments also play an important role in why female attorneys may choose to leave the profession, but as those underlying causes are largely individual to each attorney, this article focuses on the underlying causes which may be seen as applying to the practice of law as a whole.
The American Bar Association released data in July 2021 which speaks to the gender pay gap and perceptions of gender bias. Women now account for approximately half of all law school students and law firm associates. However, by the time these female attorneys gain the necessary experience to attain partnership status, a large percentage are no longer practicing law. As time and experience are gained, fewer women are practicing, which means that fewer women are eligible to become a partner. Only approximately 20 percent of the managing and equity partners are female attorneys. At this rate, it is estimated that women will reach the same level as men in leadership positions by approximately 2085.
Obviously, the number of female partners is a significant factor in the current wage gap. According to data collected in 2020, female associates were paid 91 percent of what their male associates made; however, by the time female attorneys reached equity partner status, that number dropped significantly. Equity female partners were paid 85 percent of the salaries made by their comparable male counterparts, which averaged out to female equity partners making $132,426 less per year than male equity partners. Taken one step further, this calculates to an average disparity of approximately $1.3 million over a 10-year period and approximately $2 million over a 15-year period.
Perceptions of gender bias continue to have a detrimental impact on the retention of female attorneys. This issue will be discussed later in more detail, but initially it is important to note that while almost 90 percent of men thought their firm made gender diversity a priority, only about half of the female attorneys believed it. This is obviously a large difference in how men and women view gender within their firms and organizations.
Retention of female attorneys should be a priority for the legal profession. When senior female attorneys leave a firm or the profession, their firms and organizations lose the time and money invested in them.
As stated earlier, one of the most effective means for addressing the pay gap and perceptions of gender bias within firms and organizations is the development of three types of “ships” – mentorship, sponsorship, and allyship. And each has added benefits.
The “ship” most familiar and most often utilized is mentorship. A mentor is “anyone with experience who can support a mentee on how to build skills. professional demeanor, and self-confidence in the workplace.” Mentorship comes in many forms: an experienced attorney assisting a single law student or advising a group, a partner and associate relationship within a firm, or through bar association involvement, again, whether that mentor relationship be informal or formal.
The Center for Talent Innovation suggests that an overwhelming majority of women need guidance addressing practical issues within their offices. The center’s research highlights the positive impact mentoring has on leadership and communication skills, expanding business relationships, and gaining a more extensive network of contacts. The benefits of mentorship are difficult to deny.
Women face a unique issue regarding mentorship in that, within the legal profession, the majority of attorneys with the requisite experience to productively mentor are male. Typically, mentees seek mentors who are like themselves. Women mentor other women at a rate of 83 percent. While women supporting other women is essential for the retention of female lawyers, it is also imperative that male attorneys make a concerted effort to mentor female attorneys.
The statistics on this aspect of mentorship are troubling. According to one source, senior men are 3.5 times more likely to hesitate when asked to have a work dinner with a junior woman than when asked to have a work dinner with a junior man, and they are five times more likely to hesitate when asked to travel with a junior female. A survey by LeanIn.org shows that 60 percent of male managers in the U.S. are “uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring….” It is therefore no surprise that women interact much less with their senior level leaders than their male counterparts; in fact, almost 60 percent of women of color have never informally interacted with their senior leaders. Obviously, the negative impact of these statistics on potential female mentees is tremendous. Women are much less likely to receive the benefits of mentorship, unlike their male counterparts. This means female attorneys have less opportunities to develop leadership skills, fewer interactions with senior level attorneys, and fewer opportunities to expand their legal and business network. These decreased opportunities lead to an increased perception of gender bias among female attorneys, as well as greater job dissatisfaction. Consider the following data collected by the American Bar Association:
- 88 percent of men believed their firms prioritized gender diversity, but only 54 percent of women believed the same.
- 84 percent of men said their firm had “succeeded in promoting women into positions of leadership,” yet only 55 percent of women stated the same.
- 74 percent of men thought their firm had “successfully retained experienced women attorneys,” only 47 percent thought the same.
- 7 percent of men thought gender was the reason they were overlooked for advancement, while an amazing 53 percent of women thought their gender stopped them from advancing within their firm.
- 73 percent of men are satisfied with their firm’s leadership, but only 53 percent of women felt the same.
- 62 percent of men felt “extremely or somewhat satisfied” with the advancement opportunities provided to them by their firm, while only 45 percent of women felt the same.
Effective mentorship by male and female attorneys can have a significant positive impact on this data. Research shows that mentorship is dually impactful on both mentor and mentee. Mentors report a gain in appreciation for their work and better insight into other’s perspectives and ideas. The majority of financial executives, 63 percent, have been mentors at some point in their careers. The two chief benefits of being a mentor, according to these executives, is the improvement of leadership skills (38 percent), and the satisfaction of helping others (29 percent).
While mentorship is certainly valuable to both mentor and mentee, perhaps the two remaining “ships” provide even more effective means for retention of female attorneys.
Sponsorship is more specific than mentoring in that it is tailored to a “senior member of management invested in the protegee’s success.” Typically, mentors provide advice, while sponsors open links to give their protegees the tools to carry out any guidance or advice previously received. Mentorship offers advice and knowledge, while sponsorship provides connections and relations that are valuable for a sustainable career. Effective sponsorship is centered upon the premise that the sponsor has enough influence and power to change or reinforce opinions made by the decision makers within the firm or organization and that the sponsor will use that influence and power to actively advocate for his or her protegee.
Sponsors should possess sufficient connections and networks to help their protegees gain better and more productive relationships in the workplace. Consequently, sponsors are generally senior level attorneys, as they must possess a significant level of influence and power to advocate for their protegees in a positive and effective way. Sponsors actively lobby for advancement in their protegees’ careers, as well as actively promoting and supporting the ideas of their protegees.
Sponsorship is one of the most valuable relationships that a female attorney can cultivate. It directly affects the rate of promotion and advancement. Women with senior-level sponsors rise in their organizations at the same rate and level as men. However, according to one source, if females do not have sponsors, they fall behind their male counterparts in promotion, leadership roles, and salary. Interestingly enough, female lawyers tend to be over-mentored and under-sponsored. It is vital that women receive advocacy from other women, but also, and perhaps more importantly, that they receive advocacy from men. As is obvious from the previously cited statistics, the pool for available sponsors within the legal profession is primarily male. Therefore, male attorneys should search for opportunities to sponsor deserving female attorneys.
Sponsorship, like mentorship, does have its issues. One study suggests that when women are willing to advocate for diversity and equity by sponsoring other women, the sponsors are negatively affected in that they are not offered higher positions and receive lower performance ratings. Understandably, some female attorneys are hesitant to sponsor other women. Even so, women still commit to sponsoring other women at a higher rate than men. Whether male or female, the risks and rewards of sponsorship of female attorneys is well worth the effort. Research shows that women who have been, or are being, sponsored are 27 percent more likely to ask for a raise and 22 percent more likely to ask for assignments that build their reputations, as sponsors provide confidence. Sponsorship directly impacts retention of female employees as 85 percent of females who are mothers and are sponsored stay at their jobs, while that number drops to 58 percent for those mothers without a sponsor. Additionally, attorneys who serve as sponsors are 11 percent more likely to report job satisfaction than those without protegees, and this number increases to a whopping 30 percent for sponsors of color. The need for effective sponsors cannot be undervalued. It is one of the most effective tools we have as a legal profession to combat the lack of retention of female attorneys.
Likewise, the third “ship” is similarly vital to this goal.
Allyship is a relationship among equals. While the mentorship and sponsorship relationships occur between a more experienced attorney and a less-experienced attorney or law student, the relationship between allies is generally a relationship between professional equals. In other words, allies are typically at the same structural level or tier within their firm or organization.
Allies work together to improve the workplace environment. Through encouragement and collaboration, allies create strategies which address inequities in the workplace. Allyship is centered on providing a space for active listening and open conversation. Allies may also serve as mentors and sponsors, but an ally’s main objective is to pool resources and join forces with others to advocate for change. Allyship is a group effort to improve overall equity and success within the firm or organization.
Advantages of allyship are self-evident as it pertains to retention of female attorneys within the legal profession. If allyship is effective, female attorneys will stay with their firm or organization longer. Evidence shows that organizations which have higher percentages of female leaders outperform other similar organizations by “quantifiably superior financial results.” Effective allyship would also improve satisfaction for attorneys who participate in the process. Building ally relationships to effectuate change within firms and organizations leads to overall success, not only for the allies, but also their respective employers or groups.
Mentorship, sponsorship, and allyship are three of the most effective tools attorneys and firms can use to combat the issue of female attorney retention. The bonus to all three “ships” is that the mentor, sponsor, and ally receive as many benefits from these relationships as their respective mentees, protegees, and other allies.
Endnotes  Ida Abbot, The Critical Role of Men in Advancing Women Lawyers, Wealthcounsel Quarterly, fall 2019, www.wealthcounsel.com (Last visited December 20, 2021).
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