13 December 2012

Women Notch Progress in Legal, Medical Fields

originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal:

In a major shift from a generation ago, women now account for a third of the nation's lawyers and doctors when those professions were occupied almost exclusively by men, new Census figures show.

Women's share of jobs in the legal and medical fields climbed during the past decade even as their share of the overall workforce stalled at slightly less than half. Women held 33.4% of legal jobs—including lawyers, judges, magistrates and other judicial workers—in 2010, up from 29.2% in 2000. The share of female physicians and surgeons increased to 32.4% from 26.8% during that time.

According to the president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a nonprofit group in Washington, that's very significant progress, in the midst of a lot of evidence that women's progress has plateaued, nevertheless we can see that women are still making progress in some very professional, high-wage fields.

Women's gains in these fields follow the rise in their professional school enrollments over time. Harvard Law School, for example, was closed to women until 1950, and the Washington and Lee University School of Law was the last U.S. law school to open its admissions to women in 1972, according to research by Hannah Brenner and Renee Newman Knake of Michigan State University's College of Law. Today, women graduate from law school in roughly the same numbers as men. They make up just under half—45.4%—of medical residents and fellows, or medical-school graduates in training, according to the American Medical Association.

A 26-year-old Miami resident said earlier generations in her family of Greek heritage believed women were meant to stay at home and raise children. While she was growing up, her mother didn't work.

But her parents emphasized the importance of getting an education to achieve a middle-class lifestyle. She earned a bachelor's degree in American history at Columbia University. During school, she worked part-time at a Manhattan law firm feeding off the energy of assisting on big cases, she said.

She graduated from the University of Miami School of Law last year and now is a commercial litigator. Two partners in the Florida firm where she works are mothers raising children, she said that for her, and for other women we're kind of just trying to get a start on our careers and focus on that.

Despite women's greater presence in law and medicine, wage gaps between men and women persist in both fields. In 2007, the median income—the point at which half earn more and half earn less—of female lawyers was $90,000, compared with $122,000 for male lawyers, according to research by Harvard economists.

The median income of female physicians was $112,128, compared with $186,916 for male physicians. Those differences are largely explained by individual choices, including women taking off time to raise children or opting for less-demanding career tracks or positions that pay less. But a small portion of the gap exists for unclear reasons. Discrimination could also be a factor, though it isn't clear how much, according to the economists.

One of the economists said women's gains in medicine have coincided with the rise of corporate-owned hospitals and medical practices, in many cases making it easier for women to balance work and family. Health-care companies have bought up many small, previously male-owned independent practices and raised women's wages closer to men's, while offering more flexible work schedules.

While women have made strides in the legal profession, at law firms few are taking management positions. Some leave for jobs as counsel to corporations, where hours can be more predictable. At large law firms, women make up just 15% of equity partners, according to a survey released in October by the National Association of Women Lawyers. Of the 200 firms surveyed, just 4% had a woman at the helm in the role of firm-wide managing partner.

A lawyer in Oakland, Calif., said biases against women were overt in 1975, when she graduated from the University of California Hastings College of the Law and started looking for jobs.

People would say directly, 'You can't be a lawyer because you're a woman, women are too emotional, their voices are too high,... they aren't tough enough,' she said women still face barriers to leadership jobs at firms, because advancement is largely based on hours worked. You're really trying to break into an established network, coming at it from the perspective of the woman, when most of the structures are designed by men.

A Michigan State University associate law professor, said while women graduate from law school in roughly the same numbers as men, many women leave the field for careers that offer more flexibility in hours and location.

The professor stated, as much as it's good to see the progress, she still remains troubled that we don't see a lot of our law graduates staying in the profession.

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