Bar's gender equality unit targets pay disparity
In an effort to raise awareness about the issues that may be contributing to wide disparities in pay and promotions between male and female lawyers, the Allegheny County Bar Association has launched an Institute for Gender Equality.
The institute, which will offer programs on topics such as women in leadership roles, mentoring and work-life balance, is among the recommendations contained in a report released yesterday by the bar association's Gender Equality Task Force.
The task force was created in response to a 2005 survey that found female lawyers' salaries and opportunities for career advancement had barely improved since 1990.
For the last 18 months, the task force has conducted research, held focus groups and engaged in one-on-one meetings with legal professionals -- men and women whose jobs ranged from law clerks to top executives -- to identify gender-related issues and develop a strategy to shrink the gender gap.
In addition to the new institute, the task force report recommended that law firms, corporate legal departments and other organizations that employ lawyers address a range of gender issues including unbiased compensation systems and initiatives that will help lower the number of women leaving the legal profession.
Task force members said creation of the institute was their top recommendation because it involves taking specific actions to resolve gender-related problems.
"What we'd like to do is really take charge of the issue and eradicate inequality within the Allegheny County Bar Association and the legal community here," said U.S. Magistrate Judge Lisa Pupo Lenihan, task force co-chair.
"I didn't think programming held four times a year would be effective enough," said Linda Varrenti Hernandez, gender equality coordinator for the bar association and author of the report. "We had to provide an opportunity for everyone to partake in the solution to this problem. Whatever we had to do had to be more permanent. If we don't do something like this, we'll lose the incentive we need to go forward."
The institute will track participants and what classes they take and follow up with them for feedback, said Ms. Varrenti Hernandez.
For instance, someone enrolled in a negotiation skills class might later answer a survey from the institute about what he or she learned, whether he or she used the skills and if they were effective.
"It's important to have some tool to measure the results without waiting another considerable amount of time," said Ms. Varrenti Hernandez. "We didn't want to wait another 15 years to do another survey."
Among the findings of the bar association's 2005 survey were that female lawyers were more likely to report lower salaries than men with comparable education and responsibilities; and that women were twice as likely than men to be dissatisfied with their job situation. Overall, the study concluded that women lawyers weren't doing much better in terms of pay and professional advancement than they were at the time of the last survey on gender issues in 1990.
The Institute for Gender Equality, expected to offer classes beginning in early 2009, will target three groups, said Ms. Varrenti Hernandez: decision-makers at law firms, corporations, government agencies and other organizations; practicing attorneys; and law school students. Classes will be held at the bar association's Downtown offices and other locations.
Participants will pay for classes, and programs will include local and national speakers. The institute also will develop a mobile component to provide programming at various locations.
"I think the most important outcome, frankly, of all of this is heightened awareness of the situation," said Timothy Ryan, chief executive officer of Downtown law firm Eckert Seamans and a member of the task force's best practices subcommittee.
"Even if you don't believe the problem exists, if it's perceived, in many ways, it's real."
Eckert Seamans created its own women's initiative about a year ago, Mr. Ryan said, "because we believe there is an issue in the workplace."
Among the ways Eckert is trying to address gender issues is by providing flex-time scheduling and mentoring programs for its staff, Mr. Ryan said.
Judge Pupo Lenihan is optimistic the Gender Equality Institute and other initiatives will help to eventually eliminate the kind of obstacles she encountered as a woman rising through the ranks of private law firms after she graduated from law school in 1983.
"I don't feel there was intentional discrimination, but often women were treated differently. It was a little bit harder to get involved with firm activities if you didn't golf. And it was harder to meet clients and bring in business. There was not a lot of training for that kind of thing."
One of the reasons she jumped from private practice to a government job was to better juggle her career with the demands of raising three children. "At a law firm, it's hard to bill hours, bring in business and still raise a family."
The judge believes that pay disparities between male and female lawyers have increased because women "aren't staying with firms to reach levels where they're making the money that men are making at top levels."
The goal of the task force, she said, "is to address the issues that are causing them to drop out."
First Published June 18, 2008 12:00 am