The Woman:Judge Nancy Gertner, Professor of Practice, Harvard Law School
The Talk: Is the Cup Half Full or Half Empty: Reflections on the Second Wave of Feminism
The Question: How can women achieve parity? Demand more; Never settle.
When Judge Nancy Gertner interviewed for her first clerkship as a Yale Law School graduate in the spring of 1971, the judge asked her, “Do you plan to marry and have children?”. Now, four decades and two children later, Gertner reflects in her new book, In Defense of Women: Memoirs of an Unrepentant Advocate, how she challenged the male-dominated law profession, upset the status-quo, and continues to inspire parity in the field.
Forty years ago, Judge Gertner believed that when women achieved 50 percent of law school degrees, they would become 50 percent of law firm partners and federal judges. But woman attained 50 percent of law school graduate degrees in the early ‘90s -- almost 20 years ago -- and yet they hold only 19 percent of law firm partner positions and are less than 30 percent of federal judges.
"The Leaky Pipeline"
Gertner’s research, coupled with similar undertakings from the nonprofit, Catalyst, found that women are more likely than men to leave firms or drop down to part-time employment. When these women left their firms, they did not switch positions; instead, they went home. Family and personal responsibilities were the number one reason women left their firm jobs. She refers to this dropout as "The Leaky Pipeline".
More strikingly, however, her talk mentioned an even greater phenomenon coined by Facebook CEO, Sheryl Sandberg: Women lean out, not in.
"Young women lean out right away, knowing that they are going to have children. They choose a career path that enables them to have children," says Gertner. "Instead of choosing the partner route at a large firm, they choose a medium-sized firm; instead of corporate law, they choose family practice… and this is changing attitudes." It appears that the first wave of feminism -- where women donned shoulder pads and briefcases -- is being met with the reality of the infamous, and seemingly unattainable, "work-life balance". As long as women continue to be (or are believed to be) the main caregiver, the percentage of women in the upper echelons threatens to remain static. To contrast this, women need to lean in, not out.
"The Opaqueness of Discrimination"
But Gertner finds another pressing issue in the work place: discrimination is no longer explicit, it’s implicit. Unconscious biases slip into judgments, stereotypes, and decision-making, and it prevents women from attaining top positions. “If the only discrimination is the one where a boss says, ‘I hate women’, we’ re not going to see this,” explained Gertner.
A study from the White House Project emphasizes this same conclusion: “..the largest barriers to women’s progress in the legal profession come from systemic and subtle bias rather than overt discrimination. Unconscious stereotypes, inadequate access to support networks, inflexible workplace structures, and sexual harassment are widely-cited factors.”*
What can be done.
Gertner gave two solutions for those in attendance: government incentives and personal perseverance.
For example, imagine if families received a tax credit for childcare? Or if paid corporate maternity -- and paternity -- leave were reimbursed? Or if companies had a fiscal incentive to create a corporate culture balancing work and familial responsibilities for both women and men? This would not only encourage more balanced gender norms, but would begin to institutionalize it.
And finally, says Gertner, to achieve parity at the highest levels, women need to demand more. They need to be unsatisfied with the status quo, because while the status quo may be “better” than 20 years ago, it is still not equal.
*White House Project Report: Benchmarking Women’s Leadership (2009). http://www.benchmarks.thewhitehouseproject.org
Melissa Sandgren is an MPP1 candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and a participant in WAPPP's From Harvard Square to the Oval Office program