What Most People Get Wrong About Men and Women

Organizational policies and broken contexts drive inequality—not fixed gender traits.

Between the #metoo movement and other cultural forces and a some not-so-gentle pushes from corporate clients, law firms are now fully tangling with the reality that gender inequality in the workplace can only be rectified through proactive policies. While it was unimaginable a decade ago when they hoped the issues would magically resolve, we now see managing partners talking openly about, for example, how differences in women’s approach to risk-taking, negotiation, and work-life balance impact the trajectory of their careers and their compensation. This is great news, right?

There’s just one problem, according to a fascinating piece in the Harvard Business Review. This way of talking about inequality—embracing the premise that men and women are inherently different in their approaches to work situations—furthers beliefs and stereotypes that have been debunked by decades of reliable data about fundamental differences between men and women. The short answer is that men and women are not nearly so different as we persist in believing. They behave differently in various settings not because of inherent traits but because of organizational practices and patterns of interaction that position—and reward and punish—men and women differently.

Well-meaning interventions attempting to make the legal workplace more equitable fail time and again because they focus on trying to get women to change their modes of interacting instead of focusing on unpacking existing organizational culture issues, policies, and practices that reward men and/or hinder women. This is especially true about business development. The notion that men are simply better suited, temperamentally, to be rainmakers is just not born out by facts.

As the HBR reporters write, “The extent to which employees are able to thrive and succeed at work depends partly on the kinds of opportunities and treatment they receive.” For example, women are less connected to networks offering support and valuable information that might help women succeed during negotiations. They may not know where the other side stands, what they might be willing to concede, and even how likely a deal is given several factors they might not be aware of. A woman negotiating under those circumstances might not do well, but it’s not because she lacks confidence to ask for more. She simply doesn’t have vital information that a man is more likely to have access to.

An initiative to help boost women’s confidence in the workplace would be a waste of resources. Instead, the firm must focus on creating a context that gives women access to the same opportunities as their male colleagues. And that means leadership must reflect on the effects of its own policies and be willing to unpack some of the tired narratives that are perpetuating the divide.  From our perspective, this means that firms must identify future “faces of the firm” and invest in building their platforms for future business development, rather than waiting to who see who turns out to be an old client’s favorite new young partner.

This piece is a must-read for any firm serious about making real progress toward gender parity.