Women in the Workplace — How Far We’ve Come (Part I)
February 7, 2021
Looking back at the history of working women makes it clear how far we’ve come as a society — and in law specifically — but also how far there is to go.
As McGuireWoods Partner Phyllis Young puts it in this episode: “It’s almost like we started with these bigger issues and it’s gotten more refined as far as how we’re treating women in the workplace.”
After the 19th Amendment gave some women the right to vote in 1920, it still took an uphill struggle to make the law apply in practice for women of color.
At the same time, women were fighting for equal pay.
Legislation like the 1963 Equal Pay Act, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments formed a solid backbone, as did cases championed by gender discrimination attorneys like late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
However, as McGuireWoods Associate Kelsey Hitchcock notes, not only does the gender wage gap still exist, it’s even wider for women of color. Statistics also show that although more women than men are earning law degrees, more men hold senior positions in law firms.
One place where women are given more than their fair share of work is at home. In heterosexual relationships, women are still doing most of the housework and childcare — a dynamic that has been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But that’s not to say there hasn’t been progress. McGuireWoods Counsel Ann Dorsett says that 30 years into her career, she’s finally seeing fewer women dropping out of the legal profession, and more women — and men — willing to help the next generation of female lawyers.
“It has to be intentional: involving women in client meetings, placing them in higher roles. And I do see that intentionality.”
Meet Your Hosts
Name: Ann Dorsett
Title: Counsel at McGuireWoods
Specialty: Ann counsels clients on insurance law, including coverage litigation, claims counseling and litigation management.
Where to find her: LinkedIn
Name: Kelsey Hitchcock
Title: Associate at McGuireWoods
Specialty: Kelsey specializes in corporate transactions, advising clients on topics including mergers and acquisitions, divestitures and corporate governance.
Where to find her: LinkedIn
Name: Phyllis Young
Title: Partner at McGuireWoods
Speciality: Phyllis is an expert in transactional law, handling secured lending transactions, debt restructuring and complex intercreditor arrangements.
Where to find her: LinkedIn
Top takeaways from this episode
● COVID-19 has exacerbated existing inequities in household labor. Any advances towards equality in the office are undermined by the fact that women in heterosexual relationships are still spending more time than their male partners on household chores and childcare. And although more people — including men — are working from home thanks to COVID-19, far from leading to a more even division of labor, this has mostly seen women take on more tasks — even in households where men think they’ve stepped up.
● Looking back as recently as the ‘70s, it’s clear that women are in a better position today. We can apply for credit cards in our own names, have the legal right to earn the same pay for equal work, and the idea of a female lawyer isn’t a punchline. However, these are low bars to measure progress against. Sexism is still expressed through microaggressions and even in outright hostility towards women who reach positions of seniority male colleagues see as threatening.
● Change has to be intentional. At this point, explicitly stated sexist beliefs and behaviors are frowned upon by most legal professionals. But reaching true equality means addressing subconscious biases. In addition, people in positions of power — mostly men but also women — need to be intentional about promoting inclusive work environments for women and minorities.
[01:18] Herstory: Ann summarizes the history of women in the workplace, starting with the 19th Amendment granting some women the right to vote in 1920, through to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
[02:55] Thank you, RBG: A shout out to the late, great and some say notorious Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and her early work arguing sex discrimination cases.as an attorney with the ACLU.
[06:40] Overqualified, underpaid: Kelsey cites statistics showing that more women than men are graduating from law school, but fewer are being promoted to senior positions in law firms. Women are expected to act as admins in the office while also taking on the majority of chores at home — especially during COVID.
[12:24] Make the effort, men: Ann feels that women joining law firms today are less prepared than she was for the sexism they still face — and that people in positions of power need to be intentional about including and promoting women.
[15:32] The new sexism: Phyllis says that generally speaking, more overt kinds of sexism are no longer widely acceptable today, and that the focus is on addressing subconscious biases.
[20:19] Double-edged double duty: The remote work trend might help women in the long term, proving that people can be productive outside the office and with flexible schedules. But there’s also a risk it will further embed the assumption that childcare is “women’s work.”
[23:15] Paying it forward: Over her career, Ann has seen improvements in women’s status at work, with more men taking paternity leave and more women helping each other climb the ladder.
[25:57] Partner paradox: Phyllis believes there’s more gender and ethnic diversity in leadership today — with room for improvement. But it was when she became a partner that she first experienced aggression from male attorneys, who were threatened by her seniority.
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