Newswise — The legal profession's efforts to promote diversity are working to get women lawyers in the law firm door, but once they're in, they remain less likely to be promoted to partner, a new study by a University of Iowa sociologist shows.

The study, led by Mary Noonan, associate professor of sociology in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, found that women who practiced in a firm for five or more years were 13 percent less likely than men to make partner, even if their qualifications were equal and regardless of whether they had children.

Noonan analyzed data collected from two groups of Michigan Law School graduates -- the classes of 1972-78 and 1979-85 -- who completed surveys one, five and 15 years after graduation. Women who graduated in the '80s were more likely to try out and less likely to leave private practice, which typically pays better than other legal careers but has traditionally attracted more men. In all, 198 women and 1,187 men were surveyed in the first group of graduates and 304 women and 814 men in the later group.

Of those who graduated in the '70s, 75 percent of women and 87 percent of men practiced in a firm for at least one year. Eighty-five percent of women who finished school in the '80s tested the profession, compared to 90 percent of men.

Almost 29 percent of women who earned law degrees in the '70s left private practice within four years, compared to just 11 percent of men. But only 18 percent of women who graduated in the '80s left within four years, compared to 14 percent of men.

"That part is good news. There's no glass ceiling keeping women out of firms or pushing them out in the first couple of years. There's a welcome mat: 'Come on in, please work for us, we want you here.'" Noonan said. "Unfortunately, those who stay aren't making it to the top at the same rate as men. We found no gender inequality at the first stage of their careers, but that final stage seems out of reach for a lot of women. And that hasn't changed at all over time."

Women who graduated in the '70s and worked in a firm five years or longer had a 54 percent probability of becoming partner, compared to 67 percent for men.

The gap was no different for those who finished law school in the '80s -- even though women were more integrated into the profession by then. In that group, women had a 40 percent chance of making partner compared to 53 percent for men.

Virtually all -- 90 percent -- of female lawyers in both groups combined reported experiencing sexual discrimination from colleagues or clients.

"What we don't know is whether the women intentionally steered themselves off the path to partnership, or whether someone blocked the road and pushed them off," Noonan said.

The study showed that less than half of partners in law firms were happy with their work-family balance. It's possible some women considered how the demands of partnership could impact their lives and decided to avoid it, Noonan said.

"They might have different priorities. Maybe the women said, 'Yeah, partners have a lot of power and make a lot of money, but they work a lot of hours and they're stressed out, and that's not what life is about for me,'" Noonan said.

But, the fact that these women stuck with a firm instead of pursuing other types of legal careers that may involve less pressure and fewer hours suggests that they are highly motivated and want the prize of partnership, she said.

Noonan suspects that women want to make partner just as badly as men, but are not as easily incorporated into the office network. Sometimes sexual discrimination is as subtle as not inviting a female colleague to social events where business is discussed and professional relationships develop, she said.

"Older men tend to feel less comfortable spending time with a young woman than with a young man. With the guys, it's more of a father-son bond -- let's play some golf, let's hit happy hour, and I'll give you some advice about your career and see what I can do to help you," she said. "Men might shy away from that type of mentoring relationship with a young woman because they're afraid of what people will think."

And, Noonan notes, the selection process for partnership isn't necessarily objective. Even if a woman does well in her work, colleagues with the clout to name partners may still have difficulty picturing her in a position of power.

The study was published in the March issue of the journal Social Science Research. Co-authors were Mary Corcoran and Paul Courant at the University of Michigan.

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Social Science Research, March 2008