Men Don’t Think There’s a Problem. And That’s a Problem

Are you a male law firm leader comparing notes with other male law firm leaders about the state of gender equity at your firm? If so, you are probably feeling pretty positive about the progress you’ve made in elevating women to more influential positions and increasing women’s access to opportunity. To be specific, 84% of men in the legal industry “believe their firm has succeeded in promoting women into positions of leadership,” and 88% of men said gender diversity is a “priority” at their firm, in a recent ABA survey of the industry.

Women in law, you might be surprised to learn, do not share this rosy outlook. Just 55% of those surveyed agreed with the above statements.

What is going on here? How could two groups of people observe the same objective set of facts and draw two totally different conclusions?

Patrick Smith’s article zeroes in on one cause: men in leadership roles aren’t asking female attorneys, for example, about their experience with the way matters are staffed in order to understand whether access to opportunity is improving. Instead, they . . . lean on their own observations? Ask other men, who promptly reassure them that everything is fine? It’s not completely clear how they come to the perception they hold. As consultant Deborah Farone notes in the piece, men often do not ask women — the people impacted by the state of gender equity at their firm — because they don’t actually want to hear the answer.

But this survey illuminates another interesting fact about the perception of equity: The language we use to talk about progress in the law firm context is completely subjective and so poorly defined as to be meaningless. And that is either a slow-moving — decades-long! — accident, or an awfully handy way to avoid accountability.

The men who answered the survey question about promoting women into positions of leadership might better have phrased their response as, “I believe my firm has succeeded according to the way I define success.” Those definitions may be all over the map. Male leaders committed to genuine equity understand that their firms have a long way to go. Others may think 20% is good enough, since it’s better than it used to be, or may be the types who say “I don’t see gender — I don’t care if you’re pink, blue or purple” and therefore object to the premise of the question. Still others may be the type of lawyer (i.e. most of them) who is constitutionally incapable of admitting to underperformance on any metric under the sun.

Obviously the point of the survey was to illuminate the gulf in perception about equity between women and men, not speak to where things actually stand. But it’s worth remembering that there is an objective metric for success in promoting women to leadership, and that number is 50%. Gender equity means that power is equally distributed between women and men in the firm. If law leaders, male or female, perceive anything short of true equity as a success, then the industry doesn’t just have a problem listening and communicating on this issue. It has two camps of people committed to fundamentally different goals, which is leading them to make fundamentally different decisions. And one of those camps holds vastly more power than the other to shape the future of the legal industry.