Does having a female at the top of the ticket matter?

This presidential election cycle has certainly been one for the ages. The country is more divided than it's ever been, and even the parties themselves are in states of disrepair. These days, presidential candidates no longer attack each other's policy positions; they resort to low-brow insults, childish jabs, and personal affronts. Animosity and resentment have replaced reasonable discourse. I think we're all ready for November to come and go.

Nevertheless, one pre-November event that at least each party's loyalists can always look forward to are the party conventions. The conventions provide a brief week of celebration, allowing attendees and viewers alike to revel in all that is great about their party, complete with over-the-top light shows and rock-and-roll performances.

This year's conventions didn't disappoint. The RNC convention featured a rousing and bombastic speech from Giuliani, an impassioned (albeit somewhat unoriginal) plea from Melania, and a host of B-list (or maybe D-list) celebrities, from Duck Dynasty's Willie Robertson to Happy Days' Scott Baio. The DNC convention featured an at-times comedic speech by Al Franken, sporadic but conspicuous heckles from Bernie's supporters, and the type of memorable and stirring speech we've come to expect from the president.

But for me, the highlight of it all was Hillary's speech formally accepting her party's nomination. The highlight was not the substance of the speech I've listened to countless Clinton speeches, and we all generally know where she (currently) stands on the major issues. The speech was important because it happened. Whatever your political leanings, I hope the historical nature of nominating a woman to represent a major political party wasn't lost on you. This country has had more than 100 males nominated by our major parties to be president over the last 227 years. This year, something different happened.

I watched Clinton's formal acceptance of the nomination at home with my wife, Laura. I saw Laura close to tears as the camera panned the crowd during the speech. The telecast showed mothers and grandmothers openly sobbing, reactions that felt genuine and understandable, particularly considering most of these women were born at a time where this type of achievement seemed unfathomable. Many of them had likely given up on the idea of seeing this happen in their lifetimes.

I've had several discussions with friends and colleagues who downplay the significance of the event. They suggest that, in 2016, we shouldn't be focusing on the gender or race of a candidate that we're beyond that as a country. As the argument goes, women, and Hillary in particular, have the same opportunities as anyone else who's willing to work to succeed. Don't we live in a country where little girls believe, in the words of Michelle Obama, that the "only height of [their] achievements is the reach of [their] dreams and [their] willingness to work for them"?

The simple answer is "no." Just like we aren't living in a post-racial America (i.e., a theoretical society in which racial preference and prejudice no longer exist), we aren't living in a country that provides women with the same opportunities to rise to leadership positions as men.

And, it turns out, the dearth of women in visible leadership positions like the presidency does substantial harm to the ambitions, expectations, and achievement possibilities of young women across this country. A study, co-authored by MIT economist Esther Duflo, and published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, supports this idea. The study looked at young women in West Bengal, where quotas for female politicians in local government were instituted in the early 1990s. The researchers traveled to hundreds of villages around India and surveyed families with pre-teen and teenage children to figure out whether there was a gap in expectations and ambitions between the girls and boys. What they found was astonishing: in areas of the country with long-serving female leaders, the gender gap in teen education had completely disappeared, and parents were 25 percent more likely to report having more ambitious educational goals for their girls. Conversely, in villages with only male leaders, parents were 45 percent less likely to want their daughters to graduate from school compared to boys, and the girls themselves were 32 percent less likely to want to complete school. The researchers called this the "role-model effect": by simply seeing women in leadership positions, girls' aspirations, ambitions and community expectations dramatically increased.

Despite what has happened in other countries that have chosen female leadership, up until now, we in the United States have all been living in a village that's only allowed men to occupy its highest positions. And law firms haven't been immune from these adverse "role model" effects.

According to the ABA, women constitute roughly half of all law school students and law firm summer associates, while representing only about 21 percent of law firm partners, and only 18 percent of the managing partners of the 200 largest law firms. A mere 24 percent of Fortune 500 general counsels are female.

What's caused this? Of course, there are a bunch of reasons. One of the problems is the traditional law firm's work expectations: we live in a 24/7, "always on" law firm culture, which has a disparate impact on women, who, despite changing familial roles, still bear the brunt of child care duties. Another is what's known as the "likeability vs. competence" problem. Studies show women who exhibit traditionally masculine leadership characteristics (assertiveness, independence, power) are often considered competent, but less likeable than their male counterparts (see Exhibit A: Hillary Clinton). Women who display more traditionally feminine leadership qualities (helpfulness, caring, flexible) may be more likeable, but are not as respected in the workplace.

Maybe the most problematic cause is the role model effect. The statistics all show that, relative to men, there simply aren't many women in leadership positions in law firms, which creates a self-fulfilling feedback loop: female associates start working at firms that don't have women leaders, which creates an expectation that most of them won't rise in the leadership ranks. So what can we do? A vital, and seemingly obvious, first step is to actually promote women to leadership positions. After all, optics and imagery matter, if for no other reason than to give young women interested in careers in law firms role models in leadership positions.

This is a difficult issue, and as a male lawyer, I'm certain I don't have all the answers, but if it worked in West Bengal, maybe it can work in Lower Manhattan too.

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© 2016 Under Analysis, LLC. Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. Contact Under Analysis by e-mail at comments@levisongroup.com.

Published: Fri, Aug 26, 2016

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