This past week I had a long conversation with a leading woman in an industry not at all related to law, and we compared notes on the challenges women face in male dominated industries. A big factor in the success rate for women in both her industry and the legal world is the effectiveness of mentors. This post from October of 2008 is one of my early discussions of role models and mentors. Today, people also often speak of the importance of "sponsors" to the success of women professionals. A sponsor is someone, man or woman, who mentors and models successful behavior and skills, but also intends to and does provide opportunities for the woman to be seen and to be successful, with a good amount of sensitivity to the challenges faced by women in the particular industry. Professional women need heroes to inspire us, mentors to teach us, role models to show us what it looks like to succeed, and sponsors to make the path accessible.
I spend a fair amount of time drafting legal documents. One of my favorite parts of the exercise is defining terms. I like to know exactly what words mean in an agreement. Actually, I always like to know exactly what words mean. Which might explain in part why I am a lawyer and not, say, the veterinarian I started out to be.
In any event, if we are going to talk about heroes, mentors and role models, the place to start is with defining the terms. According to Wikipedia, the first widely recognizable female superhero is Wonder Woman, from All-American Publications. A superhero is a fictional character "of unprecedented physical prowess dedicated to acts of derring-do in the public interest". An ordinary heroine is defined as "the best example of certain cherished values and behaviors." The term role model was introduced by Robert K. Merton. Merton says that individuals compare themselves with "reference groups" of people who occupy the social role to which the individual aspires. The term has passed into general use to mean any "person who serves as an example, whose behavior is emulated by others."
The word mentor means a trusted friend, counselor or teacher, usually a more experienced person. Most law firms have had mentoring programs for many years, at least the last ten. In these programs new associates are paired with more experienced attorneys (usually associates, occasionally partners) in order to obtain good examples and advice when they join the firm.
Stanford Law School has posted a wonderful list of women lawyer heroines, but I am not sure any of them rise to the level of superhero. My first personal heroine among women lawyers was Sandra Day O'Connor, who was appointed in 1981 when I was a sophomore in college. Several of my other heroines also appear on Stanford's list. While these women inspired me to take on a man's job, they haven't really been any help in the day-to-day struggle to be an effective lawyer, and at the same time achieve personal growth and satisfaction in the profession.
For that help, women look for role models and mentors. For the twenty years I have been practicing law, there have been very few role models for women, although the number of women who have risen to positions of prominence in law firms and law departments certainly has increased. Among the women who have achieved a senior leadership level, there is still a serious shortage of role models for the diverse array of women lawyers who are looking to the future of their professional careers. Working mothers who are lawyers, women of color, lesbian women: we're all looking for role models, and still finding very few of them in private practice.
Mentor programs have also been a somewhat mixed bag. The best mentor programs match attorneys with someone in the firm who is willing to be a trusted teacher, counselor and friend, but not necessarily someone who is a role model. The programs seem to be used almost exclusively for new attorneys in their first year or two at a firm, but after that attorneys are left to their own resources to find a mentor. It seems to me that to increase the number of women who achieve at the highest level in this profession, in equal proportion to the number of women who attend law school and enter private practice, law firms should design programs to increase mentoring at all levels, not just the entry level.
If there were more formal mentoring programs to provide support to women at all levels of their legal careers, there might be more—and more diverse—role models. With more role models, more women might stay in the profession and advance rather than leave mid-career. And with more role models, there would be more heroes on the Stanford list. And someday, a woman lawyer will be a Superhero.
Spend some time surfing wikipedia for great articles on these topics, a history of the usage of the terms and lots of other fun stuff. The story of Super Woman is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superhero#Superheroines.
The Stanford Law School list of women lawyers is at http://womenslegalhistory.stanford.edu/profiles.html.
Who is your hero?