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

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.

Marta Choroszewicz


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

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