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A League of Their Own: The Importance of Women’s Groups in the Legal Workplace

King County Bar Bulletin
April 2017

Overview

Baseball has long been recognized as a sport for men just as the law has a longstanding tradition as a profession for men. Slowly but surely, people have worked to buck that latter view.

“A League of Their Own” is a fictionalized movie presenting the true story of the Rockford Peaches, a women’s baseball team in the first All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The league started during World War II while many men were away at war. The movie depicts the struggles women faced while working in what was then a male-dominated profession. Early in the film, the team’s manager, played by Tom Hanks, ranted: “Ballplayers? I don’t have ballplayers. I’ve got girls.”

Private law firms continue to face dilemmas similar to those in “A League of Their Own.” In a field dominated by men, women hope to “knock it out of the park” and earn leadership roles. While firms generally hire an equal number of men and women early in their careers, leadership roles are dominated by men — this phenomenon is called the “leaky pipeline.”[1]

The situation is even worse for women of color, lesbian women and transgender women, who face greater challenges as a result of their identity.[2] To this day, many law firms share the same view toward law as they did toward baseball — their female employees are not attorneys, they’re “girls.”

Many law firms have developed women’s groups to support and sustain women in law. These groups are a great step toward equality. Much like the Rockford Peaches, women’s groups empower their members to work together and develop their careers.

“Hey cowgirls, you see the grass? Don’t eat it.”

In “A League of Their Own,” a baseball recruiter left his newfound female baseball talent in a stadium to try out for teams. The women entered the stadium excited. They were welcomed by a man on the field who stated: “Hey cowgirls, you see the grass? Don’t eat it.” He equated them to cattle, suggesting that they were unintelligent and ugly.

Today, such overt sexism is less common than it was in the 1940s. However, women face bias, unfair expectations and subtle discrimination in the legal field on a daily basis. Despite improvements, interoffice culture still favors male development. This culture and its associated biases contribute to women’s inequality in leadership.

Women also face the so-called “Double Bind” — the expectation that women seeking leadership roles must exhibit stereotypically female characteristics, such as compassion and gentleness, while simultaneously presenting a tough, strong leader persona.[3] This double-bind is virtually impossible to overcome, making it difficult for women to succeed.

Women’s groups work to prevent the effects of bias, gender-based expectations and discrimination in several ways, including:

  • identifying and supporting women leaders;
  • hosting events to discuss unconscious bias;
  • analyzing firm salary and promotion statistics to correct for bias;
  • developing sponsorship or mentorship programs; and
  • informing men about these challenges.

Through these processes, women’s groups can support the hiring, retention and promotion of women attorneys. Women attorneys, like the ballplayers in “A League of Their Own,” should strive for a future without overt or subtle bias and sexism.

“There’s no crying in baseball!”

The Rockford Peaches’ manager was not interested in working with women. He disliked his new job, having retired as a baseball player due to injury. When a player missed a play, he yelled at her and she cried. He responded by shouting (famously): “There’s no crying in baseball!” He believed that yelling at ballplayers is commonplace, but crying is not. However, the Rockford Peaches did not share his views.

Certain aspects of the legal field that were historically commonplace are heavily biased toward men. For example, networking, business development and client relations were often focused on sports events or drinking. These activities may leave out women who are either not interested or not invited.

Women’s groups can provide other business development opportunities. For instance, they can partner with outside organizations to provide trainings, create networking opportunities, and learn from other leaders in their communities. They also can invite an outside speaker to give a presentation to clients. Women’s groups can assist in creating an engaging environment for women to shine.

Women lawyers should not be faced with a mentor, like Hanks’s character, who does not understand them or advise them on business development. With changes to the typical routine, women’s groups can develop opportunities for women to thrive and build a book of business. As for the Rockford Peaches, fortunately Hanks’s character learned to adjust his expectations and effectively coach his team.

“I really thought you were a ballplayer.”

Dottie, the main character played by Geena Davis, decided to leave the Rockford Peaches when her husband returned from the war. She explained to her coach: “It just got too hard.” Being a team player meant hard work, time on the road and separation from her husband. She ultimately moved home to Oregon to start a family.

Moving up the ranks as a woman in law can feel “just too hard.” Even absent bias, women are often expected or encouraged to assume “office housekeeping” tasks in addition to their billable-hour requirements, such as taking notes at a meeting, serving on committees and planning events.[4]

These unbillable tasks take women away from valuable opportunities. Partially as a result of these non-billable burdens, “women are significantly more likely to feel emotionally exhausted” and women “burn out” at much higher rates than men.[5] Participation in these unbillable tasks provides significant value to the firm, but firms typically do not compensate for such work.[6]

Women’s groups can tackle this issue. A women’s group can examine the number of billable hours, committee membership and administrative tasks assumed by employees and consider disparities between men and women. Using that information, the group can recommend changes to leadership that address unequal distribution of tasks or compensation for valuable unbillable work. If these additional tasks were recognized and paid for, women may be less inclined to leave their positions because it is “just too hard.”

“Careers and higher education are leading to the masculinization of women.”

During World War II, women baseball players were virtually nonexistent. Women were significantly more likely to be found in the kitchen than on a baseball field. In “A League of Their Own,” a female radio personality noted changes in women’s priorities, complaining, “Careers and higher education are leading to the masculinization of women.”

Gender stereotypes don’t help anyone and pursuit of a career is no more masculine than feminine. However, even today, cultural norms assume that women (rather than men) must sacrifice their careers in order to support their families. Women often leave law firms due to work/family tradeoffs, resulting in fewer attorneys who are also mothers.

A study of Chicago lawyers found that among the few women becoming partners of firms, “60% had no children, and the minority who had children generally had delayed childbearing until attaining partner status.”[7] When firms are not supportive of work/life balance, they lose their talent.

Women’s groups can work to prevent this significant loss by supporting non-standard hours for parents, on-site child care, seminars on work/life balance, options for breastfeeding, and flex- or part-time options. Women’s groups can also support maternity and paternity leave. Paternity leave has an important role in gender equality.[8] When a father takes paternity leave, he benefits from time with his child, the mother’s burden is reduced, and firms will no longer assume that childcare is a woman’s job. Fulfilling careers should be available to both genders, and women’s groups can help make that happen.

Challenges faced by women baseball players in “A League of Their Own” may seem distant, but many of the same issues remain in today’s legal workplace. Women’s groups can work to improve the future by tackling bias, providing business development opportunities, addressing uneven administrative expectations, and supporting work/life balance. 


[1] Elizabeth Olson, “‘Leaky pipeline’ into law schools puts women at career disadvantage,” ‎The Seattle Times, Dec. 3, 2016, available ‎at: http://www.seattletimes.com/business/leaky-pipeline-into-law-schools-puts-women-at-‎career-disadvantage/ (last visited March 17, 2017). “Despite the high numbers with law ‎degrees, women hold fewer than 20 percent of partnerships at law firms and are ‎underrepresented in the higher echelons of law, including the ranks of judges, corporate ‎counsel, law school deans and professors.”‎

[2] See, e.g., “Visible Invisibility Executive Summary, American Bar Association Commission on ‎Women in the Profession” (2006), available ‎at: http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/migrated/women/woc/visible_invisibility.authcheckdam.pdf.‎

[3] Shankar Vedantam, Jennifer Schmidt, Renee Klahr & Tara Boyle, “Too Sweet, or Too Shrill? The ‎Double Bind for Women,” National Public Radio, October 18, 2016, available ‎at: http://www.npr.org/2016/10/18/498309357/too-sweet-or-too-shrill-the-double-bind-for-‎women (last visited March 17, 2017).‎

[4] Adam Grant & Sheryl Sandberg, “Madam C.E.O., Get Me a Coffee,” The New York Times, ‎available here.

[5] Id.‎

[6] Id. “Research shows that teams with greater helping behavior attain greater profits, sales, quality, ‎effectiveness, revenue and customer satisfaction.”‎

[7] Alice Eagley & Linda L. Carli, “Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership,” Harvard Business ‎Review, Sept. 2007, available at: https://hbr.org/2007/09/women-and-the-labyrinth-of-‎leadership (last visited March 17, 2017).‎

[8] DOL Policy Brief: “Paternity Leave, Why Parental Leave for Fathers Is So Important for Working Families,” U.S. Department of Labor, available at: https://www.dol.gov/asp/policy-development/PaternityBrief.pdf (last visited March 17, 2017).

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