“[W]omen are leaving law firms at what should be the height of their careers,” and “[T]he gender breakdown of summer associates and associates is almost equal, but then changes dramatically at the partner level.” These extraordinary statements in Ian Pisarcik’s “Women Outnumber Men in Law School Classrooms for The Third Year in a Row, but Statistics Don’t Tell the Full Story” invited me on a journey behind the fabled wizard’s curtain. What might be the micro-variables that are contributing to this now well-documented phenomenon?
The attrition of women at the height of their careers is not isolated to the legal profession. According to Emily Miller’s dissertation, “Examining Factors Associated with the Success of Women in Mathematics Doctoral Programs,” math, like law, has gender parity at pre-service and early career, but that gender parity is lost through a mechanism she labels a "leaky pipeline" in which women leak out more than men from pre-service to entrenched roles. There is gender parity in math at the bachelor's degree level; however, women make up only 21% of tenured track math professors. Similarly, according to Pisarcik, women make up only 19% of equity partners in law firms, having graduated at parity levels (if not with slightly higher numbers than their male counterparts.) There are similar figures for all other traditionally male-dominated scientific fields that illustrate the leaky pipeline as progressive (worsens over time), and persistent (little has changed over time).
The leaky pipeline is a nuanced phenomenon and likely the result of several variables working in tandem. What's more, it is most pronounced in fields such as law and mathematics where participation "gives women access to power, influence, and wealth," as both Miller and Pisarcik note.
The explanatory variables for why women leave the legal profession explored by Pisarcik are well documented: pay gaps, gender bias, harassment, choosing non-profit work, or choosing to take on more “invisible work” in the family/child rearing domains. But these are macro-variables – real phenomena that have their own root causes.
And this is where my journey begins. I set out to examine a micro-variable that may be at the root of the high rate of attrition of women in the law. Namely, scrutiny. While thinking about the leaky pipeline I was remembering some of my favorite career moments. They tended to be moments of discovery, of synthesizing ideas and combining them in a way that felt like a flash of insight. A “Eureka!” or, “Aha!” moment. What a burst of utter joy, and how incredibly sad that so many of those slipping through the leaky pipeline would not feel, would not know those moments. Because they were not just pleasure, not just gratification – not just payment for the hard work that came before that moment, but freedom. One feels so free. The limits one once knew are no more, and the realm of possibilities is a light and pulsing intensely in all its glory and mystery, ready for one’s personal adventure of discovery.
Indeed, freedom and overcoming limits are the grandest aspects of the journey. Both as a researcher and a teacher I have seen that freedom necessarily balanced by the “rules of the road,” sort of speak. I have no issue with there being rules of engagement. But sadly, I have seen many journeys destroyed by a stifling scrutiny. Even Supreme Court female justices, if we are to believe Pisarcik, undergo more scrutiny than their male counterparts.
Understanding the relationship between disproportionate scrutiny and innovation is important to alleviating the underrepresentation of women in powerful and influential positions. If women in law are experiencing more scrutiny, that may lead to less innovation and higher rates of burn-out. The relationship between scrutiny and innovation is nuanced. Some guidance is necessary; one can't be asked to invent the wheel every time just in the name of innovation/freedom. Human societies have thrived in part due to their ability to record their stories. There needs to be a balance between freedom and guidance, with a foundation of trust.
There needs to be trust to bring women into the profession and nurture them, but also trust in their ability on the job, whatever form that takes over time. Leaders should provide encouragement with empowering support and options. This would allow for the possibility of innovation which might lead to the experience of success—and success is the name of the game.
Roughly one out of every five female professionals in traditionally male-dominated fields realize powerful leadership positions. Society has yet to invest the trust needed to support women who strive for professional power, influence, and wealth. Finding this balance is not for the faint of heart, but we are up for the challenge. Trust me.
Mayra Hernandez is a J.D. candidate at California Western School of Law with a background in applied mathematics research, and a former community college math instructor.