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Striking a Balance

by holly english '83

Striking a Balance Illustration
(Illustration by Marc Mongeau)

If attorneys stop perceiving legal workplace issues as gender-based, both men and women will benefit.

Conflicting statistics dominate accounts of women in the legal workplace. On the one hand, we celebrate the huge increase of females in the legal profession over the last generation: from 7,500 in 1960 to the present 300,000, a jump from 3 percent of the profession to 30 percent. On the other hand, we decry the figures about females in leadership, who represent only 16 percent of firm partners and 5 percent of managing partners, the numbers having hardly budged in a decade.

Now let’s look at some numbers about a group usually forgotten in the gender-issues debate: men. Males make up 70 percent of practitioners, 74 percent of federal judges, 80 percent of state supreme court justices, 84 percent of law firm partners, 87 percent of Fortune 500 general counsel, and 95 percent of firm managing partners. They are the great majority of the profession and, overwhelmingly, the decision makers.

Although this might suggest that the relentless focus on women in the debate over gender issues should persist, I’d argue otherwise. Men also suffe in a split view of people’s workplace needs, and the sooner concerns are seen as human-based rather than gender-based, the sooner true workplace equality can be achieved.

Let’s look at the men for a moment. Plenty of them have their own dilemmas. They face isolation in the workplace if they are shy and retiring, finding it hard to advance because their personality is contrary to established norms of bold, brash manhood. And take sexual harassment, a concept not even articulated let alone actionable a generation ago. It now informs minutiae such as whether to keep the office door open or closed during a meeting and whether to invite Susie along with Sam to the golf outing. Men are sometimes more hemmed in by traditional stereotypes than women. While women have some leeway to take time off or adopt reduced hours for the sake of child care, for instance, most men believe (correctly) that if they do so, or even fleetingly think aloud about doing so, they will be stigmatized.

Increasingly, men’s concerns are converging with those of women. Many men are frustrated by the traditional management models of law firms and other legal employers, preferring—as do many women—more collegial, collaborative, and flexible approaches. Sometimes men get a taste of what women have experienced all along, such as the delicate art of fending off romantic overtures by female colleagues and clients while keeping relationships intact.

Perhaps the greatest common denominator is lifestyle. Women leave law firms in greater numbers than men, but men are not far behind, complaining privately, if not publicly, that they hate the pressure, lack of predictability, and long hours just as much as their sisters in the law do. Indeed, a 2001 survey of lawyers conducted by Catalyst (a New York-based organization that promotes women in business) found that 61 percent of the women and a large share of the men—47 percent—who bolted law firms cited lifestyle as their reason for moving on.

This common denominator suggests it would be beneficial and relatively easy to explicitly include men under the gender issues rubric.

First, there are many initiatives in workplaces designed to help women that are good for everyone. Why not work toward flexible schedules for all who want them, not just women with small children? What’s the problem with teaching leadership skills to everyone, rather than focusing on supposedly female weaknesses? (Many men balk at leadership roles, too.)

Second, and more important, involving men is the way to help women. It will free women from being viewed as isolated “problem people,” instead making them typical of lawyers and their management issues with legal employers. Gender issues can morph into human, workplace-wide concerns.

Finally, because men are the decision makers, and since change starts at the top, men are more likely to be dedicated to difficult, long-term management goals if they perceive benefits for all.

So let’s talk about men, too—and watch the “women’s numbers” zoom up.


Holly English is the author of Gender on Trial: Sexual Stereotypes and Work/Life Balance in the Legal Workplace (ALM Publishing, 2003).