A New View
Imagine that you are on the ground floor of a building, one of those modern structures where balconied floors surround a central atrium reaching from the lobby to the roof. As you gaze upward, you can see all the floors and on each floor, people are working at desks, sitting around conference tables or walking to and fro.
As you scan the floors, you notice a pattern. On the lower floors you see a mix of people—old and young, white, black and brown, male and female. But as you look up, the view changes. By the seventh and eighth floors, the people are increasingly homogeneous—more white, more male. On the highest floor, women and people of color have all but vanished.
This has been the scenario for most U.S. businesses and professions for too long. While in recent instances the glass ceiling has been broken, many women—in attempting to pull themselves up into leadership positions—often find themselves cut and bloodied by the remaining shards, with no helping hand extended to pull them over or to remove the glass. My goal is to help remove those shards.
Women represent half the American labor force; they control or influence 80 percent of all consumer and business purchases of goods and services; they have sole or joint ownership of 87 percent of homes; they carry 76 million credit cards (8 million more than men); and they start 70 percent of all new businesses. They buy or influence the purchase of 80 percent of all cars—a fact that made the automotive industry sit up and take notice.
Yet, according to a 2001 study by the research and advocacy group Catalyst, women sit on only 12.4 percent of Fortune 500 company corporate boards, and only two Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs or presidents.
A LAG IN LEADERSHIP
The legal profession does not fare much better in promoting and retaining women in leadership roles. While nearly 30 percent of the profession is female, only 13 percent of general counsel, 16 percent of law firm partners and less than 3 percent of the managing partners of the Am Law 200 firms are women. Even more discouraging, women of color are situated at the lowest rungs of every segment of the profession’s ladder. For these women, the glass ceiling feels more like a concrete ceiling. They experience the double bind of race and gender, unlike white women and men of color who share gender or race with those typically in higher levels of management. Among the challenges women of color face are exclusion from informal networks, lack of institutional support, questioning of their authority and credibility, and conflicted relationships with white women.
For these reasons, I asked Diane Yu, chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession, to lead an effort to create a summit focused on finding and sustaining ways to remove the obstacles women face as they break through the glass ceiling of law firm and corporate leadership.
Assisting the commission are summit co-chair Alice Richmond, Laurel Bellows and Pamela Roberts, all members of the ABA Board of Governors. Sponsorship is provided by the ABA Diversity Center and the ABA sections of Business Law, Labor and Employment Law and Litigation, as well as the ABA Young Lawyers Division. It is co-sponsored by the Association of Corporate Counsel America and Lex Mundi.
The summit will be May 24-25 in New York City. We want to energize the business and legal communities to further improve the status of women in the profession and leverage the clout of female lawyers. We will meet with CEOs of corporations who have initiated changes to achieve diversity at the highest levels, hear from general counsel who are determining what works and what does not, and collaborate with other managing partners to craft practices from these principles.
Also, in a first-of-its-kind research project, the women’s commission is conducting a two-year study analyzing the career movement and experiences of female attorneys of color. The research findings will be documented in a report with recommendations, model initiatives and strategies for legal employers. We look forward to that report coming out in time for the 2005 ABA Annual Meeting.
The balance of power in American business and society is changing, and our profession must not lag behind. In the near future, when you enter that glass atrium, the view—from bottom to top—will be different, with the same mix of women, men and people of color in plain view on every floor. And the legal profession will be the better for it.