Author and consultant Ida Abbott has helped employers develop, manage and retain legal talent since 1995. She is also a mentor and coach whose clients range from small and midsize law offices to global law and accounting firms. She also runs “Breakfast for Champions,” a program that came out of her book, Sponsoring Women: What Men Need to Know. At a Breakfast for Champions event, women invite men who are or want to be sponsors for women, and men who have sponsored women in the past are honored.
Ida Abbott sat down with Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law (TWLL) to discuss how the Breakfast for Champions program is working and the value in creating a safe place for men and women to have a discussion about gender inequity in the legal profession.
Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law: What challenges is the Breakfast for Champions program addressing?
Ida Abbott: You wake up one morning and have a blinding flash of the obvious. “Why, after decades of women trying to make changes, isn’t it happening?” And you realize it’s because men still hold the power but aren’t asked or expected to do any of the work. It’s women trying to do it alone. Women are close to half of the entering lawyers in law firms but disappear by the time you get to the top. Why are we focusing on what women need to do? Why aren’t we saying, “What’s wrong with law firms and the men who run them that they can’t create a work environment in which women want to stay and succeed?” Firms have to change and, as men usually control them, men have to help in effectuating that change.
Most organizations already have women’s initiatives and that’s valuable. But [I realized that at the same time women were attending women-only events] young men were being invited by senior partners to go to events where they were actually meeting clients. They had opportunities that women were losing out on, and this is partially due to the fact that women wanted their own networks. Men started to feel that they didn’t need to be involved.
TWLL: How did the Breakfast program come out of that?
Ida Abbott: A lot of men told me they wanted to help but they didn’t know what they could do or whether it was welcome. So I wrote a book called Sponsoring Women: What Men Need to Know. I wanted to promote the book in a way that got the information across and wasn’t threatening to them.
Diversity training is helpful in terms of raising awareness, but it doesn’t register in the same way, especially if it doesn’t provide practical solutions. Lawyers, especially men, sit in the audience and think, “What am I supposed to do about it?” I thought, what better way than to let them hear from their male colleagues how it’s done.
At a Breakfast for Champions event, women describe how particular men helped advance their careers. The male champions then share their perspectives about what they did, why, and how they benefitted as well as their protégées. Through these personal stories of their partners and colleagues, audience members learn proven, concrete actions that they can take to promote women.
TWLL: How do you measure the success of this initiative?
Ida Abbott: One measure is when I have a lot of men in the room, all ages, different demographics. I see it as a sign of success when men and women are discussing together subjects that women usually discuss only with each other. The comments and questions I get from the audience are telling.
I welcome pushback, because I need to know where to adjust what I’m saying to address the audience’s concerns. If someone tells me, “This is what I try to do, but it doesn’t always work and I feel frustrated,” I can turn around and ask the audience, “What would you tell him?” Or I can offer specific steps: for example, if you’re a man, look at whom you’ve had lunch with recently. If women haven’t been included, ask yourself why. There are always women you ought to know better because they’re on your team or in your practice group. Or, for example, a young woman might say, “This guy told me to use golf as a way to get to know clients. But I’ve got young kids at home. I don’t have time to spend six hours on the weekend on the golf course. What do I do?” In this case, her boss or her sponsor needs to learn new techniques and new ways to get to know clients.
And it’s not just an issue for women — there are also lots of men who don’t want to spend six hours on the golf course. Many things women have been promoting for years would benefit men too, if they would only realize it. Of course, the best sign of success is to see male-female sponsorship increase following the event.
TWLL: In your experience, what does creating a safe place for this discussion look like?
Ida Abbott: It’s difficult to create an environment that feels safe enough for everyone. One factor is allowing men to feel that, if they speak up, they aren’t going to be criticized as being sexist or an old fogey or uninformed. Sometimes they’re worried about being misunderstood, or accused of making inappropriate comments.
Women also need to feel comfortable speaking about their concerns. Women, especially young women, sometimes feel more comfortable with other women than being with older men, for similar reasons. They might worry: “What if he thinks what I say is dumb or that I’m flirting with him?” So men and women can find it hard to talk to each other about issues that need to be aired.
To make any real progress for women, men and women need to communicate and work together effectively. We’ve got to get men in the room and get them engaged in a way that will be productive in terms of making structural changes we need in most law firms. And that’s really what the Breakfast for Champions is about.