Jennifer is committed to the leadership track and loves her career and company. She has two kids and loves being a mom and her life is set up to accommodate family and career. When I met her, she was torn, but leaning toward leaving her firm for another offer. But, unlike many others, her company didn’t lose her to a “better offer.”
We lose too many female lawyers and we lose them when they have been trained, gained experience, and become most valuable. ABAforLawStudents.com reports that there are now 1.1 women in law school for each man. In the world of hospitality real estate, for every woman who is a Chief Legal Officer or General Counsel there are 3.2 men as of 2019, according to the Castell Project report “Women in Hospitality Industry Leadership 2020” (free to download at www.CastellProject.org). For comparison, there are now 2.8 male Fortune 500 general counsels for each female.
The pace of change for women has been slower among employed attorneys than in law schools and Jennifer’s story illustrates part of the reason.
Around the time Jennifer had a second child, the culture in her office changed with the addition of a new executive. It wasn’t terribly overt, but the low-key sniping became untenable. Jennifer’s husband was proud of her career and did not want to be the sole breadwinner. But he wanted her to be happy, so he offered her the job of full-time mother. It was a good offer, although not the career either of them wanted for her.
When women leave a firm, there is a common cultural attitude that this is the right and natural appeal of full-time motherhood. It’s not surprising since women could be fired for being pregnant until 1978, well within the formative years for many senior leaders. Within Jennifer’s company, some people assumed that she should and would want to take her husband’s offer. Instead, company culture can recognize that it is losing talent to “better offers.” Corporate culture is a crucial component to gender diversity. A firm that really understands those better offers can effectively compete to keep its talent.
Companies cannot address this kind of better offer on their own. Their female professionals also need the skills to navigate difficult situations. Jennifer went to her network of professional women to talk through her dilemma. These are often opportunities that women cannot discuss within their companies, so a network of career-oriented colleagues is invaluable. Jennifer also understood how to use a coach to strategize and had gender-specific training in negotiation.
It was a challenge for Jennifer to navigate a way forward. It was a challenge for the firm to first recognize and then address the situation in her office. Ultimately, the company responded to Jennifer’s “better offer” by resolving the issue with the executive who was making her working life unpleasant. Jennifer negotiated a solution and the firm retained their valuable asset.
What will it take for the hospitality industry to benefit fully from its pipeline of talented female attorneys? Gender diversity is a significant benefit. According to S&P Global Market Intelligence, “Firms with female CEOs and CFOs have produced superior stock price performance compared to the market average.”
At Castell Project, a 501c3 non-profit advancing gender diversity in the hospitality industry, we find that changing this paradigm requires action on two fronts.
Female professionals themselves are part of the solution. Castell Project finds that there are areas in which women are perceived so sufficiently differently that they benefit from gender-specific leadership development. These areas include negotiation and communication as well as developing executive presence and building relationships with advocates. Two other critical factors are a resource network of other women both within and outside their firms and access to career planning services experienced in working with successful women. The Castell BUILD and Castell ELEVATE programs are built around providing resources in these critical areas because very few firms are large enough to provide these resources internally.
Corporate culture is also part of the solution. Attitudes have changed dramatically in recent years, but the culture is always a work-in-progress. Cultural attitudes toward women, even within a forward-thinking company like Jennifer’s, are still erratic and inconsistent. Realizing the full value of female legal professionals takes deliberate work on corporate culture as well as deliberate development for women.