What’s Diversity Got to Do With It?
Throughout the history of feminism, women as a group have been the “other” gender fighting for equal rights and equal opportunities. While women make up almost half of total law school graduates, the data confirms that women are not equally represented in law firm partnership, in corporate counsel offices, on the bench or in other leadership positions in our profession. We are all familiar with the explanations and reasons given for this, and we continue to struggle to change this reality.
Our hope for change is fueled in part by the notion that legal employers want to boast of a “diverse” workforce to attract diverse candidates as well as to meet their clients’ expectations and demands for a diverse group of people to work on their legal matters. The arguments for diversity are indeed compelling. But isn’t it perplexing that women, particularly those with family responsibilities, feel at times that they have to stake their claim to executive positions or positions of leadership in the name of diversity rather than equality?
I’ve been thinking about that question since spending a weekend with five corporate lawyers, all working in the auto finance field in the mid-west (a male dominated arena). These women are all very accomplished and successful. One of the women in her mid-forties was struggling with a decision about whether to pursue an even bigger job at her company. In reality, she felt that she was already doing most of the duties of the elevated position but not getting the recognition or pay for it. At the same time, she values her current work arrangement which allows her to leave in the afternoons to pick up her child at school, and then return to work either at the office or at home. And on Fridays, she works remotely from home. She wanted to pursue the new position, but did not want to lose this flexibility and ability to manage and enjoy both her work and family life.
She was discussing with our group how she might approach her boss about taking the new position/title while keeping her current work arrangement. Her proposed argument to the boss went like this: the company wants and values “diversity” in executive roles and as a working mother she provides that diversity. My immediate reaction to that argument was this: why do women who have both proven their worth in the workplace and value their family role have to pitch their worthiness for a promotion in the name of diversity? What’s diversity got to do with it? Women are at least half the population in this country, and according to the U.S. Department of Labor, 70% of women with children under 18 participate in the labor force. So why do we still view the ideal worker norm as an individual (male or female) whose work life exists in a vacuum void of consideration of family responsibilities?
This is a difficult issue that I will attempt to explore in subsequent posts. For now I raise it to bring awareness to it as a major obstacle that we must address. When it comes to women being equally represented in leadership positions within the legal profession, we are definitely still “chasing the last wave.”
This blog post was authored by Molly Tami. Molly Tami serves as the Assistant Dean for Career & Professional Development at USD School of Law. She previously designed and taught a course on Law, Gender and the Work/Family Conflict and is passionate about advancing women in the legal profession.