Women in the Law

Gender gap in associate promotions and turnover is higher when bosses are conservative, study says

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Gender disparities in associate promotions and turnover are greater when male partners in the associates’ practice area are more politically conservative, according to a study of the nation’s largest 200 law firms.

One of the study authors, University of Michigan assistant professor Seth Carnahan, spoke about the findings in an article published at the University of Michigan website.

“In general, women are much less likely to be promoted, and much more likely to leave their firms,” Carnahan said. “We found that this gender gap gets smaller when male bosses are more liberal, but it gets larger when male bosses are more conservative.”

The study found that women were 1.9 percent less likely than men to be promoted when male partners in their practice area were predominantly liberal; 2.6 percent less likely than men to be promoted when male partners were moderate; and 3.5 percent less likely than men to be promoted when male partners were predominantly conservative.

With regard to turnover, the study found that when male partners in an associate’s practice area had donated, on average, $1,000 over the previous 10 years to conservative causes, female associates were about 2.9 percent more likely than male associates to leave the firm. The difference rose to about 3.3 percent in practice areas where the average male partner donation to conservative causes was $2,000.

The study, published at SSRN, examined partner political contributions from 2007 to 2012 along with data from the Martindale Hubbell Law Directory and a partner promotions database maintained by the American Lawyer.

The study authors determined a partner’s political affiliation by examining partner donations to political action committees and candidates. Donations to Democrats were equated with a liberal philosophy while donations to Republicans were considered conservative. Averages were then calculated for donations to each party for male partners in associates’ practice areas. Gender was measured by comparing lawyers’ first names with a gender checker directory.

The study also found that politically liberal male partners were 0.8 percent more likely than moderate partners to select female associates for training and development, while conservative partners were 2.7 percent less likely to do so. That finding was based on an analysis of Mergermarket data on attorneys working on mergers and acquisition transactions from 2007 to 2012.

Carnahan conducted the study with Temple University assistant professor Brad Greenwood. Both teach business, but they decided to focus on the legal industry for three reasons, Greenwood told the ABA Journal. First, they saw law partners as more autonomous than executives in many other industries. There is also more available data on lawyers, and law partners were likely to be wealthy and have disposable income, Greenwood said.

Carnahan and Greenwood suggest three possible reasons why a manager’s political ideology might affect his support for gender equality: an aversion to inequality by liberal partners, beliefs about family responsibilities by conservative partners, and beliefs about leadership qualities by conservative partners.

The researchers also caution there could be other reasons for the survey results. To the degree that women associates are more liberal, it’s possible that liberal managers are rewarding associates who share their political views. Or perhaps the highest-quality female associates seek to work for liberal partners. It’s also possible that a partner supports liberal causes and supports gender diversity because he has more female clients.

Carnahan said the results shouldn’t be interpreted as anti-conservative or pro-liberal. “You could have conservative managers who don’t promote women enough and you can have liberal managers who promote women more than they otherwise should,” he said in the University of Michigan article.

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