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Are Those Women's Initiative Meetings a Waste of Time?

Can women's initiatives help break the glass ceiling at law firms?  Denise Howell doesn't think so, and explains why in her American Lawyer column, "Is a Women's Initiative Meeting Worth Your Time?".

Howell begins by setting the scene at a stereotypical women's initiative meeting at Any Law Firm, USA.  Participants include the sleep-deprived new mom and of counsel who raced back to work after her paid leave ran out so as not to jeopardize her job.  The female equity partner who hasn't seen her school-aged kids during daylight hours since they were born.  The busy committee chair whose business clout has earned her the right to work from near home.  And of course, the one or two token male lawyers tossed in for the sake of diversity.  The conversation revolves primarily around client development,  and before you know it, another non-billable hour's gone by and the firm is still no closer to solving tough issues like retaining women or increasing their pay or their role in leading the firm.

It would be one thing if women's initiative meetings were merely a benign waste of time, akin to those videos on computer care that offer no-brainer advice like "don't put your coffee cup on the keyboard," that I endured at one of my previous jobs.  But Howell makes the point that women's committees, if ineffective, actually do more harm than good because they may wind up as an object of ridicule.  And the goals are often too limited, writes Howell, settling for:

encouraging women to be like men, at least the ones we think of as traditionally successful lawyers. Hone your skills, bring in clients, find 56 productive hours in each diurnal cycle, and the keys to the kingdom will be yours. This approach ignores so-called lifestyle issues that transcend gender lines and bar lawyers from achieving success on unconventional paths, at least at big firms.

As for alternatives, Howell suggests  that firms appoint a Women's Czar, "a top management member whose job is to ensure that women come to the firm, stay there and participate meaningfully in running it and whose compensation -- and job security -- rises and falls on statistics related to those goals." 

Incidentally, Howell isn't the only one who's tired of all talk, no action when it comes to women at law firms.  Last week, American Lawyer editor Aric Press had this to say to firms that lament the absence of women at the top: Stop complaining and change the rules of the game to allow women to advance whether they jump through all of the antiquated hoops traditionally needed to achieve partnership.

How accurate is Howell's depiction of the women's iniative committee in your experience?  And what should firms do to integrate more women into the upper ranks of law firms?  Finally, given that corporations are demanding more diversity within law firm ranks, why hasn't that pushed firms -- purely for economic motives -- to work harder to help women advance?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on June 3, 2008 at 05:11 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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