“Feminism:” Word of the Year

Last week I invited you to participate in creating a collective vision of what it could look like for women to truly experience equality in law firms.  This week, I want to share some of my own reflections, and offer a fresh process and framework in which to discuss this very complex question.

I was inspired to write about this topic on New Year’s Eve Day when I heard Chuck Todd announce on NBC’s Meet the Press that Merriam-Webster’s word of the year for 2017 is “Feminism.”  My first thought was: “That’s exciting!”

To refresh my memory, I googled the definition:


Definition of Feminism

1: the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.

The question that arose for me when I read this definition was: what does “equality of the sexes” mean in practice?

I have to admit that when I was younger I was very ambivalent about “feminism.” Having come of age professionally in the 80s, it seemed to me that feminism meant trying to be the same as men. We dressed like men, wearing pin-striped suits, shoulder pads, bow ties, and carrying Brooks Brothers brief cases. Many of our female role models seemed aggressive, angry, completely career-focused, and disinterested in (or secretive about) caregiving.

I’ve always identified with the more “feminine” qualities of connection and collaboration, and was very interested in having a family. I even remember saying to a friend in the 80s: “I’m not a feminist because I have no desire to be like a man. I like being a woman.”

Like everyone, I wanted to be treated fairly.

But does this have to mean being “like a man?”  While we have come along way since the 80’s, our progress has mostly been around the edges.  Women are still largely conforming to institutional standards set by and for men.

Men and Women Are Not the Same

The fact is men and women are different. We cannot pretend we are not. The following statistics speak for themselves:

Women are:

  • 50%          Law school graduates
  • 45%          Associates
  • 20%          Partners
  • 100%        Child-bearers

And the Playing Field is Not Even

So, what does “equality of the sexes” in a law firm mean in practice, given that men and women are not the same and the playing field is not even?

On Meet The Press, Chuck Todd was discussing the issue of feminism as it relates to the numerous accusations and instances of sexual misconduct that have recently brought down some very powerful men. Starting with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly and cresting with Harvey Weinstein and the #metoo movement, we have seen a wave of women standing up to men to say “This is not OK.”

Equality of the Sexes is More Complex Than Sexual Misconduct

We all know sexual misconduct is categorically wrong.  But the question of “equality of sexes” is so much larger and more complex than just sexual misconduct.  As a coach, I continue to hear many painful revelations by women about a wide range of “Not OK” behaviors by men in their workplaces. Some are blatant, unwanted sexual advances. Others are more “subtle,” like being marginalized, disrespected, or verbally abused. These are ALL pervasive forms of inequality – and the common thread in all of these cases is that women do not feel safe giving voice to their concerns. This is one of the most significant barriers to addressing inequality in law firms and elsewhere.

If ever there was a complex problem – this is one!  Identifying the many causes and manifestations of inequality is hard – and we have no template for the solution. We are actually the pioneers trying to restructure a very complex, entrenched system. Yet this is precisely why I feel it is so important for us to have this conversation now.

As many of you know, I have become very interested in research on adult development, and how this field informs processes to solve complex problems. Experts in complexity theory tell us that one of the most effective ways to begin to address complex problems is to ask different questions, and talk about what we are not talking about.

What we know for sure, and are seeing first-hand from the #metoo movement, is that we are so much stronger with a collective voice. We can no longer approach the problem one woman at a time.  So, I want to ask you to work with me to begin a discussion of this crucial topic using the process suggested by researchers in complexity theories by answering the following questions:

Please Answer These Crucial Questions

As it relates to gender equality in law firms:

  • What are we not talking about?
  • What new questions do we want to ask?
  • Who is not in the conversation?

Topics that come to mind for me include:

  1. What are all the “not OK” behaviors in law firms that are so much a part of the culture we’ve stopped questioning them? Specificity really matters here.
  2. How does the current system dehumanize male and female attorneys?
  3. Isn’t the current law firm economic model system fundamentally sexist?  Understanding that women are the only gender in the human race  who are able to perpetuate our species, is it sexist to have a 2200+ billable hour expectation for promotion given the fact that for most women, partnership promotion comes at prime child-bearing age? Would it help to name it as such?
  4. Do high billable hour requirements really – or ever – serve the best interest of the clients?  Research is conclusive that our brains are diminished when we have not had enough sleep, eaten well, or not exercised.  If top law firms are selling the “best” lawyers to solve “the most complex” problems, how does that square with the cultural norm of many lawyers being tired and stressed much of the time?
  5. Is there another economic model that rewards collaboration, innovation and value while not sacrificing speed and responsiveness?
  6. For men who abuse their power – what life experiences or cultural belief systems led you to believe this is ok?
  7. How can younger male attorneys be helpful in changing the system starting now?
  8. What more needs to be said about the power and pull of motherhood – where does this conversation belong?

I invite you to come up with your own questions.  Send me your ideas and I will publish them – anonymously of course. Let’s see if we can move the needle on the discussion in 2018!

Are you an alumni of the Women’s Leadership Forum? I’d love for you to keep in touch with the WLF community. Request to join us in our private Facebook group here, or connect with me on LinkedIN here and send me a note that you’d like to be part of our exclusive LinkedIn group.

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