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Developing a Women’s Initiative That Works

By Elizabeth M. Del Cid, Esq.

Companies of the future are expected to have flourishing women’s initiatives with a list of rising and current stars to boot. Why? In the last 40 years or so, academia has been admitting just as many female students as male students annually on average. At some schools, women even outnumber men.

In fact, a 2012 survey of the nation’s top 200 law firms by the charitable and educational arm of the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL), the NAWL Foundation, showed that 97 percent of these firms have some form of women-specific development program. Yet, it was reported that women account for only 15 percent of equity partners and only 4 percent of managing partners in the nation’s largest firms.

“What such initiatives actually do and the impact they have on women in firms,” observes the NAWL report, published in November 2012, “is all too often not clear and, at worst, open to criticism bordering on cynicism.”

This article intends to articulate a clear mission for women’s initiatives that can actually be executed.

Mentorship Is Key

When I looked back on my personal experience with women’s initiatives at companies I worked for, I realized there seemed to be a deficit in “worthwhile” women’s initiatives. Most of these groups simply brought women together, but they did not have or carry out a defined professional objective.

An ABA Journal report on women’s initiatives at law firms (June 2013) found that these groups are primarily geared toward networking.

While networking is necessary in our field of work, I found that the bigger issue is finding ways to sustain a work/life balance. I spoke to June Carbone North, a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, about this. Professor North confirmed that more women are seeking marriage, children and a career these days. To retain women over the long term, she suggested companies should support women who aspire to have these three things and, in so doing, prevent them from having to shortchange one over the other.  

I also spoke to Corbette Doyle, a lecturer on diversity in the workplace and women’s leadership at Vanderbilt University and recipient of the 2015 Business Insurance’s Women to Watch award.  Doyle suggested asking the current leaders/experts of companies to mentor the younger, female professionals. Such a program would give the latter an opportunity to develop their skills as practitioners, learn from the best and work more closely with the firm’s clients. Doing that will forge the next generation of experts and rainmakers in-house.

Indeed, mentoring appears to be a necessary objective given studies on female participation. The “Study on Women’s Experiences at Harvard Law School” (February 2004) found that, overall, 39 percent of comments monitored were made by women, although they made up 45 percent of the students in attendance in the sample. Women made only 34 percent of student-initiated comments and exchanges. In terms of odds ratios, a male student was 32 percent more likely than a female to talk during a class meeting and 50 percent more likely to talk voluntarily.  Finally, men were 63 percent more likely to speak three or more times in a class meeting and 142 percent more likely to volunteer three or more times in a class meeting. This suggests that a mentorship program for female attorneys may help cement their career goals over time.

Statistics on minorities suggest that a women’s initiative should focus on retaining minority women professionals as well. According to the National Association for Law Placement (published in 2015), in 2014, minority women made up 2.45 percent of partners at law firms nationwide, and 11.51 percent were associates. Neither New York nor Washington, D.C., made the cut for the top 10 list of cities/regions with the most minorities as partners. Northern Virginia ranked tenth on that list, averaging 8.45 percent across firms. These statistics, while grim, are the reality. But it’s a reality that we can try to change through mentorship programs.

Conclusion

Entrepreneurial women can propel business growth and fuel personal and professional development personally and on a larger scale by being active mentors. I encourage you to seek out top candidates, make them your friends and bring them into the fold of your businesses. Women, as we can know, can do it all. The more we help one another, the sooner we are on our way to building a stronger women’s workforce and network.


Elizabeth Del Cid is a partner at the law firm of Murphy & McGonigle, PC in New York City. U.S. News ranked Murphy & McGonigle a Tier One firm, which puts it among the country’s “best law firms.” In close to a decade of practice, Elizabeth has appeared before federal and state judges at the civil and criminal level, FINRA arbitrators, the SEC’s Enforcement Division and administrative officers in California, New York and Iowa. She has advised a myriad of clients, from major broker-dealers, to government Agencies, to individuals from Latin America. Learn more at www.mmlawus.com