Women Leaders Are
1) Awesome 2) Overrated or 3) Irrelevant
By Vivia Chen
Do female leaders make a difference?
The question itself is chauvinistic. It puts pressure on women to do more, to be better than their male counterparts. Ironically, the pressure often comes from women, who contend that those with XX chromosomes lead differently, push harder for gender equality and are more attuned to the demands of work and family.
It’s hard to avoid those expectations, whether you’re talking about Hillary Clinton or Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer. That’s also the case with women who head major law firms. (According to ALM Legal Intelligence, women make up only 3.56 percent of executive management in firms.)
Firms managed by women don’t necessarily have better statistics. Among Am Law 200 firms, female equity partnership is stubbornly flat – just 16.8 percent.
But the value of having a female leader goes beyond mere numbers, women say. “There’s a signaling effect to having a leader that looks like you,” says Kathryn Fritz, the managing partner of Fenwick & West. “It reassures people that you don’t have to fit a certain box to progress.” Fritz adds that her decision to take a six-month maternity leave helps encourage women to stay on track: “I personally went through it; people need examples.”
Jami Wintz McKeon, chair of Morgan Lewis, agrees that her own balancing act sends a strong signal: “If you see someone with four kids who’s running a firm, you might be more willing to raise issues about how to make it work.” She also believes that she’s more empathetic: “I think women feel more comfortable talking to me; there’s less anxiety that I won’t understand.” Women aren’t leaving law for work-life balance, she adds, but they “need to see that the opportunity is there and that the cost/benefit is worth it.”
But McKeon admits that her success can appear daunting. “People might assume you don’t pay attention to your kids or that you have superhuman qualities,” McKeon says. “I’m frustrated that people assume that a woman who makes it is a cold-hearted bitch.” Some women might be expecting too much from female leaders, McKeon suggests: “My job is not to give her an extra advantage, but to make sure there are no artificial barriers.”
Some young women say that the value of female leaders is oversold. “I really think leadership isn’t gender-driven,” says a woman who worked at Am Law 100 firm in Dallas headed by a woman. “The best leaders I have worked with have all been men,” says this lawyer, adding that her female bosses were poor communicators – “more layered and less honest.” Instead of making success seem attainable, she says, the effect was “quite the opposite.”
Individual chemistry can affect how young women regard female leaders. Maia Cogen followed former Sutherland Asbill & Brennan partner Allegra Lawrence-Hardy to a new firm. Now an associate at Lawrence & Bundy in Atlanta, Cogen says her a “blueprint” for her career. “The bonding and camaraderie have made a huge difference,” says Cogen.
Women generally agree that seeing women in leadership roles is critical, even if those female leaders are not actively promoting equality. “When I was a Cravath, there was only one female litigation partner, who never made gender an issue,” says a woman who’s now a partner at a small firm. “She was competent and female, which was good enough, because other women followed.”
Women in leadership roles is not a panacea to the problems facing professional women, says Joan Williams of the University of California, Hastings College of Law. On the other hand, she adds, “if you’re a young woman and you see zero women in positions of the power, it tells you what the future will hold – which is not much.”