VANCOUVER, British Columbia — At the American Bar Association’s Midyear Meeting held earlier this month, I was fortunate to be part of a panel session dedicated to learning how to help women find their voice and ignore those barriers — whether people or policies — that are deterring them from reaching their goals.
The session, entitled “The Power of Finding Your Voice”, was the second event in the Present and Powerful Series, hosted by the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice (GPSolo) and Law Practice divisions of the ABA.
I opened the session with an overview of what women are experiencing in law firms today, revealed by the results of McKinsey & Company/LeanIn’s inaugural Women in Law Firms study. Responses in the study from attorneys at the participating 23 North American law firms revealed vast distinctions in women’s retention and promotion into leadership at their firms, with women entering law firms as 48% of first year classes at the surveyed firms but comprising only 19% of the equity partnership.
The study also exposed vast differences in men’s and women’s perception of the role gender may play in assignment of work, and in their perception of how often diverse candidates are considered for positions, which I believe has been the impetus for so many law firms and corporations to sign on to Diversity Labs’ Mansfield Rule.
I closed the session with a brief explanation of why Thomson Reuters worked to encourage law firms to participate in the McKinsey study: “We know many lawyers don’t see the problem in their companies or think it is mere happenstance — so we at Thomson Reuters wanted to provide hard evidence of the reality of the gender inequality problem, and to support our commitment to reaching gender parity in the legal industry.” Thomson Reuters’ Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law initiative and CEO Jim Smith’s stated goal to see 40% of Thomson Reuters’ senior leadership positions filled by women by the year 2020 are two examples of Thomson Reuters’ work in this area.
Parisa Khosravi, formerly senior vice president of international newsgathering at CNN, next told the audience compelling stories of how she never let other’s perceptions of her gender, ethnicity or religious background stifle her voice, urging attendees to stay true to their authentic selves and be proud of who they are and what they bring to the table. “If someone had an issue with me based on my gender or background, I always knew that was their problem, not mine,” said Khosravi. At CNN, she always encouraged diverse teams whose different skills she could tap into for specific assignments. “Diversity is too important, as it takes all types for a team to be successful and win,” she added. “It is the responsibility of a leader to know their people… and know how to use each of their strengths.”
Khosravi also told attendees to push themselves out of their comfort zones, as she has often done by trying things she thought she couldn’t do — such as completing a triathlon. She also suggested that women not be afraid or too proud to ask for any help when it’s needed to accomplish goals.
Men and women also should know when it’s time for a career change by listening carefully to their inner voice and taking time to reflect on what they accomplished and what they want to achieve next, she said.
GPSolo chair-elect Melanie Bragg agreed. “Don’t just run onto achieving your next goal but always stop for a minute to reflect on and appreciate everything you have just accomplished,” Bragg said.
ABA President Hilarie Bass brought the session full-circle by talking about the ABA’s initiatives to secure long-term careers for women lawyers. Bass, shareholder and co-president of Greenberg Traurig, mentioned how in this past year law schools saw classes comprised by more women than men for the first time, noting that women are still opting out of the legal industry at around 5 to 12 years into their careers. To this end, Bass said the ABA is convening surveys, focus groups, and conferences to study why some women are leaving the legal industry.
Bass warned of the inherent unhealthiness of a profession that does not reflect the characteristics of its clients and community. And while a few superstar women and attorneys of color break past barriers and find success as leaders, she vowed not to rest until the hardworking but average woman attorney or attorney of color can achieve the same levels of success as the average, hardworking white male attorney.