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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    The unbroken glass ceiling

    Gender inequality in the American workforce just isn’t what it used to be.

    Accompanied by a societal shift in attitudes in recent decades, more women than ever have broken into the traditionally male-dominated legal profession, but a story in Sunday’s New York Times reported that many more men still make their way to the tops of the country’s largest law firms.

    The Times cited the National Association for Law Placement as saying that in 2005, women comprised only 17 percent of the partners at major law firms.

    This trend is complicated by the relative equality of the number of women who complete law school and pursue a legal career.

    Women graduate from college at higher rates than men, they perform better on average in law school than men and most companies have hiring practices that take on new associates at about equal rates for both genders.

    The question on everyone’s mind, then, is why we don’t see more females as partners at large law firms.

    One frequently heard explanation is that many women choose to leave the legal profession before reaching the partner level in order to raise a family.

    This view has been reconsidered in light of reports that many young female attorneys are less willing to put their career aspirations on hold to have families than their mothers may have been.

    Kathy van Voorhees, a junior majoring in journalism at the UA who intends to become an attorney, said she is more committed to achieving success at work than she is to having a family. “”For me, having children is not a main goal, and I would rather focus on my career,”” she said.

    Yet larger numbers of women dedicated primarily to their careers in the law have not dramatically increased the number of women who actually achieve partnerships.

    Another explanation is that more women tend to leave private firms before making partner because the rigorous and demanding expectations of the job are dissatisfying for them – but the numbers of women occupying top positions in the public sector are not noticeably different.

    According to a recently published article by Vanessa Ruiz, president of the National Association of Women Judges, women make up only 24 percent of the judges in the federal judiciary, and the retirement of Sandra Day O’Connor has left only one woman on the nation’s highest court.

    At this point, it may very well be that inequality is not the result of discrimination or prejudice, but rather of systemic conditions much harder to identify.

    It’s easy to see that women were disadvantaged by unfair hiring practices in the 1970s, but it’s much harder to pinpoint the impact of the pressures modern women face to raise families and the toll that such obligations might take on women’s careers.

    With so many women leaving their posts at major law firms before making partner, firms are letting a large number of exceptional employees slip through their fingers before they can reach management level.

    Law firms, and undoubtedly other areas of business, could better serve their clients and themselves by adopting more flexible employment policies that create greater opportunity for women to have children and then return to the workforce.

    While they’re at it, they might just think about making it easier for men to step away from their careers to be more involved with their children, although the idea is still somewhat revolutionary.

    Ultimately, inequality will only be eradicated when we understand the real reasons that it exists in the first place, and in that area we still have work to do.

    Michael Huston is a junior majoring in political science and philosophy. He can be reached at

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