January 2018Volume 23Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Slow change at the top

For the past eight years, I have directed a Women in Leadership workshop at the Southern Illinois University (SIU) School of Law. My co-founder, Alice Noble-Allgire, and I were inspired to create the workshop after the 2008 presidential election which included prominent women on both sides of the aisle – Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary and Sarah Palin on the Republican ticket. We were appalled by some of the media coverage of these professional women, such as the focus on their clothing and hairstyles, media comments on Sarah Palin’s fertility and on whether Hillary Clinton’s tears were genuine, as opposed to the substance of their messages.

Professor Noble-Allgire and I also were dismayed by the continued lack of progress by women in reaching leadership positions in the legal profession. These low numbers of women in leadership positions continue despite the fact that women have been applying to law schools in approximately equal numbers to men for two decades. We thought that by creating a workshop that would get law students thinking about what it takes to become a leader and beginning work on developing the skills to be an effective leader, we might help change that dynamic just a bit.

We created a two-day workshop during the January intersession that asks students to reflect on leadership, sensitizes them to some of the gendered differences in our profession and society, and teaches students some basic lessons in negotiation, networking, supervising staff, and responding to sexual harassment, among others.

Despite its name, the Women in Leadership Workshop is open to both male and female law students and we have always had male participants (although in much smaller numbers than the women). I know that some of my greatest mentors and supporters have been men. We believe it is important to educate men to raise awareness about gendered behavior, so they can recognize it and help end it when it results in unfairly hurting women.

In preparation for the workshop each year, I prepare statistics on the number of female leaders in the legal profession, including law firm partners, law deans, state and federal judges, in-house counsel, and women in the U.S. Congress. Unfortunately, these statistics show that little progress has been made in many areas in the last decade.

I began preparing these statistics in 2010, the year we first offered the workshop, based on 2009 numbers obtained from the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession. At that time, women comprised 31% of the legal profession. They were 19% of the partners in private law firms and 15% of Fortune 500 General Counsel. 20% of law school deans were female in 2009. Women in the state and federal judiciary range from a low of 22% (U.S. Supreme Court) to a high of 32% (state courts of highest resort). Just under 18% of Congress was female.

Almost a decade has now passed. As of 2017, the legal profession is 64% male and 36% female, meaning that there are 5% more women practicing law today than in 2009. Women make up approximately 22% of the partners in private law firms, but only 18% of equity partners. Women also account for approximately one-third of the judiciary, ranging from 33-35% of federal judges and 29-35% of state court judges. These numbers show some improvement in some categories, but the upward movement is small. The number of seats occupied by women in Congress has ticked up ever so slightly from 18% to 19%. There are two areas where the gains by women are more significant: in-house counsel and female law deans. Women now comprise approximately 25% of Fortune 500 General Counsel (rather than 15%) and 31% of law school deans (as opposed to 20%). Perhaps a future study will investigate why more gains have been made in those areas than in others.

Women cannot reach these leadership positions, of course, unless they have a law degree. There is some bright news on that front. Although women still only receive 47% of all J.D. degrees, they slightly outnumbered men in the entering class of 2016 for the first time in history.

This slow progress can be discouraging. Patience is a virtue, however. We have much more work to do to reach anything near gender parity. We can only hope that our efforts with law students will help pave the way for more and better future leaders for our profession.

Cindy G. Buys is the Acting Associate Dean and a Professor at the SIU School of Law. She is a member of the Women and the Law Committee of the ISBA, as well as the International and Immigration Law Section Council.

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