Women lawyers’ under-representation in top positions of law firms in Helsinki

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This writing is based on the research article published in the English edition of Sosiologia, 2/2016.

The discussion on women’s under-representation in top positions of organizations is often, but not only, linked to women’s greater caregiving responsibilities (see e.g. Acker 2006; Bolton and Muzio 2007; Choroszewicz 2014). The issue is important to examine specifically in Finland due to the formal equality prevalent here, which sustains the common belief of equal career opportunities in working life for both women and men. This belief may result in blaming women for not being able to live up to the organizational expectations that contribute to career progress in organizations.

My article published in Sosiologia 2/2016 provides insights into women attorneys’ under-representation in top positions of law firms in Helsinki. The analysis is based on nine interviews with the Finnish women attorneys holding a range of positions (junior associate, associate, senior associate, and partner), who agreed to share their career and work experiences. The findings point towards four co-existing processes, specifically: increasing the recruitment of women, the ideal of a flexible lawyer, the expectation of having both a successful legal career and a family, and women’s use of flexible work arrangements, which sustain an advantage of male lawyers in gaining access to positions of organizational power. Yet, these four processes do not equally disadvantage professionally all interviewed women, as these women differ in terms of their caregiving responsibilities due to number and age of children, social standing, and spousal support. Furthermore, some of these processes, specifically increasing the recruitment of women and women’s use of flexible work arrangements, contribute to a better retention of women lawyers in law firms, as women do not need to make so clear choices between a career and family as their female colleagues in other countries.

However, these processes do not necessarily challenge the male norm underlying lawyers’ career advancement in law firms, which rests upon the ideal of a flexible lawyer who is professionally successful, has a family, works full-time and, if needed, is able to prioritize demands of career over caregiving responsibilities. This norm appears to be deployed by law firms as a criterion for the assessment of lawyers’ career commitment. Despite a vast body of research criticizing this norm (e.g. Acker 1990, 2006, 2012), it not only continues to be prevalent in law firms, but also intensifies in the face of technological progress, a rising market competition, and commercialism. Lawyers who are the most suitable and committed to their career are expected to be able to cope with intensive and often unpredictable working schedules, which is considered a matter of individual will and responsibility rather than an aspect influenced by social circumstances related to gender, social standing, age, and family situation.

The article demonstrates that the Finnish women attorneys’ ability to gain access to top positions of law firms is still structured by women’s capacity to live up to the above-mentioned ideal of a flexible lawyer. This ideal, together with an expectation of women having it all, is specifically detrimental to the women who are the main care providers in their families. The previous studies on women lawyers in Finland show that female lawyers still carry more family responsibilities (Choroszewicz 2014; Silius 1992, 2003), and thus they face more challenges than their male colleagues in their ability to prioritize demands of career over caregiving responsibilities. This is despite generous childcare opportunities and availability of flexible work arrangements. Against a common belief, the women’s ability to comply with this ideal of a flexible lawyer is not only linked to women’s individual will, but to equal participation of their spouses and male lawyers in caregiving responsibilities.

In order for the latter to happen, it would require joint efforts: female lawyers must demand a more equal division of work at home, law firms have to recognize both female and male lawyers as parents by addressing flexible work arrangements equally to both, and male lawyers need to draw on the parental leaves and flexible work arrangements. At the moment, predominantly women lawyers’ use of flexible work arrangements sustains the traditional gender-role expectation of women in family life while, at the same time, in law firms they are held to the same expectations for flexibility and performance as their male colleagues, who bear less caregiving responsibilities. Such a situation results in a misconception about career devotion of those lawyers (i.e., female lawyers) who draw on flexible work arrangements to juggle a legal career and family. Thus, women’s under-representation in positions of organizational power will not be overcome solely by increasing the recruitment of women lawyers as trainees, junior, and senior associates as long as the prerequisites for career advancement continue to favour lawyers who have few or no obligations outside of work.

References

Acker, Joan. 1990. “Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organization.” Gender and Society 4:2, 139−158.

Acker, Joan. 2006. “Inequality Regimes: Gender, Class, and Race in Organizations.” Gender and Society 20:4, 441−464.

Acker, Joan. 2012. “Gendered Organizations and Intersectionality: Problems and Possibilities.” Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal 31:3, 214−224.

Bolton, Sharon C. & Daniel Muzio. 2007. “Can’t Live with ‘em; Can’t Live without ‘em: Gendered Segmentation in the Legal Profession.” Sociology 41:1, 47−61.

Choroszewicz, Marta. 2014a. Managing Competitiveness in Pursuit of a Legal Career: Women Attorneys in Finland and Poland. Joensuu: University of Eastern Finland.

Silius, Harriet. 1992. Den Kringgardade Kvinnligheten. Att Vara Kvinnlig Jurist i Finland [Contracted Femininity: To be a Woman Lawyer in Finland]. Abo: Abo Academy Press.

Silius, Harriet. 2003. “Women Jurists in Finland at the Turn of the Century: Breakthrough or Intermezzo?” In Women in the World’s Legal Professions, eds. Ulrike Schulz & Gisela Shaw. Oxford: Hart, 387−399.

2 thoughts on “Women lawyers’ under-representation in top positions of law firms in Helsinki

  • 19.01.2017 at 10:44
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    Do you think it’s a problem that Women lawyers’ are under-representation in top positions of law firms in Helsinki, and if so, why? Because, while the blog is commendably neutral, it also promotes the thought of a need for more women in law firm high positions in Helsinki.

    You have to acknowledge that women in our society have the free will to choose whatever they want to strive for, whether it’s the top position of a law firm or normal position.

    These two positions are fundamentally different when it comes to commitment. Law firms are business, business cares about productivity, nothing else, it does not discriminate against gender or race – it only wants individuals, regardless of gender and race, who bring them the most positive value. If there was a woman, who was somehow more efficient at bringing worth to the company, despite engaging in extensive childcare, the company would hire her. But that doesn’t happen.

    So we’re left with a situation where everybody has free will to choose what they want, not what they ought to do. Women in general simply don’t want to commit enough time into their work to be qualified for a position that requires more work, they don’t want that kind of life. And if they don’t want that kind of life, why should anybody force a business to compensate those women for not wanting to qualify for the criteria of high positions? Nobody is entitled to something just because they want it, that’s not how life works, I can’t be hired to be a basketball pro player just because I want to. Time commitment is also a qualification for the job, if I’m hiring somebody to work 40 hours a week and somebody offers 20 hours, he does not qualify for the particular job/position. And beyond that, flexibility is exactly the same. If they need a worker with flexibility, they need and they have all the right to look for the best candidate.

    There is absolutely no need for this to change, sure you can want it to change, but why?
    Why would you need more women in law firm high positions? What difference does it offer?
    Isn’t it sexist to look at people from the perspective of their gender, instead of the perspective of individuals?

    Sincerely, Kalle

    Reply
  • 27.09.2017 at 12:08
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    From all the people who work extra hard (over times etc), vast majority turns out to be men. Now women simply blame it on family or care giving is mentioned in this piece, but that’s actually not true. Even from the people who don’t have a family men tend to work a lot harder than women. That’s my observation but I would be really interested in a study with a breakdown of different groups according to age and family situation. I am 100% sure that in singles or families with no children men still work a lot more than women on average. That’s just natural because of physical strength and lesser hormonal issues.

    Reply

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