Women Lawyers: So many achievers, where are the leaders?

So many achievers, where are the leaders?

Her question is particularly relevant for women lawyers. In a nation where women have comprised half of law school graduates for the past 10 years, a percentage that has steadily increased from 35% in 1985, how is it that so few women fill leadership positions in law firms, industry and government? A recent survey by the National Association of Women Lawyers revealed that only 15% of equity partners in America's largest law firms are women, a number that has changed very little over the past five years. And, according to theMinority Corporate Counsel Association, only one in five Fortune 500 General Counsel is a woman. Women comprise half of American voting public, yet women comprise less then 18% of the U.S. Congress.

At a reception sponsored by Marsha Clark, former President of EDS's health care unit, I joined a group of men and women leaders who gathered to discuss these questions with Doyle, a Hall of Fame sports journalist and former auto industry leader. When it comes to moving from achiever to leader, Doyle speaks from experience. Today women sports broadcasters are commonplace, but when Doyle entered the profession, some sports teams threatened to close locker rooms to reporters altogether rather than admitting her.  Doyle persevered, succeeded and now shares her own insights and those of over 125 women leaders she interviewed for her book.

How do women achievers become leaders?  Doyle's research suggests seven components:

  1. Discover your purpose.  Know who you are, whom and what you care about deeply and lead from that awareness.
  2. Raise your voice. Get past your fears, especially of criticism from others, polish up your communications skills and share your vision.
  3. Break the rules.  Doyle says that women leaders break the rules, but they do that with skill and knowledge.  
  4. Claim power.  Don't wait for someone to give you power.  You have to claim it.
  5. Drink at dangerous waters. Travel, spend time with diverse people, interact with your rivals and take risks.  According to Doyle, it is in these "dangerous waters" that leadership is forged.
  6. Get back in the saddle.  Welcome and learn from setbacks and keep moving.
  7. Embrace the strength of your "womaninity."  To fully understand this concept, you need to read the book.  But here's the gist:  Effective women leaders don't try to be one of the guys. Rather they "relax into their own skin" and bring to the leadership table their unique skills and strengths. They often approach things differently than the guys would, but are equally or more effective.  

Why is it important for women to lead?  Doyle says "size matters."  Citing a 2009 report published byErnst & Young, Doyle reminds us that when female leadership reaches a critical mass in an organization, specifically one-third of the highest level leaders, bottom line performance increases significantly.  For the typical law firm management committee, that translates to 3 to 4 women members.

Doyle closes her book with a quote from poet and author Maya Angelou that pretty much sums it all up:

If you’re born a girl, grow up and live long enough, you can become an old female. But to become a woman is a serious matter. A woman takes responsibility for the time she takes up and the space she occupies.
— Maya Angelou

If your firm or organization has more than one-third women in top leadership positions, I would love to feature you in my blog and share with others what your experience has been.