In the early 1970s, when women started making their first significant move into law school and into law firms, we had no illusions about the nature of the glass ceiling. It was there, it was immovable—and we knew that we simply did not have the numbers to break through.
It’s a completely different story today. In law school, in firms and in companies, women lawyers form a critical mass that has change and evolution written all over it. Right here, right now, the tipping point has arrived. Like a bolt shot powerfully upwards, it is already through the glass ceiling, its arrowhead intractably anchored on the ceiling’s topside. Under the ceiling, an unprecedented pool of women is gathered, ready to climb to their rightful place above the ceiling—but still they hold back.
Why? Deputy GCs, law firm partners and middle managers in greater numbers than ever before—to say nothing of women breaking the 20 percent barrier as general counsel in the Fortune 500—yet still we want for the big breakthrough. We may have the numbers, but women aren’t there in leadership yet, frozen still between the 15 percent to 18 percent mark (check out the Scoreboard to the right to see where we stood at press time). Worst of all, the numbers are glaringly against women when it comes to equitable compensation, especially on the law firm side. Indeed, women law firm partners can share many stories about how many highly paid male partners believe big compensation is their due while their female counterparts are often more concerned with justifying their compensation so that it is fair all around. Hmm.
What to do? I say women should take charge of their own destiny by leading and helping each other. It’s ironic, even paradoxical, to reflect on how advanced women are at the art of networking within their own circle, where “gal talk” frequently involves the most intimate things. Yet, women stop short when it comes to transitioning this same closeness to the business setting.
Why do the guys have the big books of business and the women do not? Because men are all about asking for it—while women, viewing “the ask” as something that abridges, even violates the gender’s networking covenant. That attitude has to change—now. In fact, women have a fair bit of behavior modification to do.
You may not like the reference to “gal talk.” But honestly, it’s what we do, along with dressing, thinking and acting differently than men. Once, we degenderized ourselves with short haircuts, silk ties, and navy blue suits, just to fit in. Those days are over—it’s high time to acknowledge, celebrate and establish the differences between women and men in the legal, business and professional context.
Women have the numbers; now is the time for action. The conditions are ripe, if not immensely favorable, for women to help other women. Think about the current life spans for GCs and CEOs—on average, between five and seven years. That translates into movement and fluidity—and opportunities galore for women to mobilize, in terms of those who have already arrived helping those who are still on the way up.
This is not gender takeover talk—far from it. It’s about women finally taking their rightful equal seat in the firm, at the company and the paymaster’s window. Helping each other at this critical tipping point is one part of the equation. As I will discuss in future postings, it will take courage—and risks—to actually make change happen.
As we move forward together in that effort, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Add your comments in the box below and I’ll address them in the months to come.