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Women at Work: Gender, Discrimination, and Professional Life Satisfaction  

In a recent Atlantic article entitled, “The End of Men,” author Hanna Rosin writes provocatively about women—in the workplace, in education, and in society. She argues that society is embracing women in a way never before seen, perhaps because “the modern, post-industrial economy is more congenial to women than to men.”

Rosin cites researchers, educators, and philosophers to make her point that, “The attributes that are most valuable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are, at a minimum, not predominantly male.” She reports that women now hold 51.4% of managerial and professional jobs, along with 45% of the associates’ positions in law firms. Given that women now earn 60% of undergraduate degrees and half of all law degrees, these percentages will continue to increase quickly. Globally, she reports, “the greater power of women, the greater the country’s economic success.” Despite this, “the US still has a wage gap, one that can be convincingly explained—at least in part—by discrimination.”

So how do women lawyers fare in North Carolina? The research literature and the findings from our 2008-2009 study, “Work and Well-Being” answer some questions while raising others.1 The differences between men and women in the profession are interesting, but the similarities may be even more so.

Men and women in our study appear surprisingly similar on occupational issues, and the findings reflect a generally stressful profession. Both groups report that their workplace is stressful to the same degree, and they face ethical compromises in their work at similar rates. Men and women experience similar rates of support from supervisors and co-workers, and the number that would advise their children to become lawyers is statistically the same—less than half.

Workload differences are also minimal. Men and women work the same number of weekends, have the same number of days on-call for emergencies, and take the same average number of vacation days. When limiting data analysis to full-time workers, men and women report working and billing statistically equivalent numbers of hours. This equivalence of productivity was also recently found in Young & Wallace’s 2009 study. It is surprising, then, that men earned more than women earned in our study. Men’s average earnings are between $100,000 and $149,999, but women’s average earnings are between $75,000 and $99,999.

So what are we to make of this? An examination of literature suggests that although women lawyers do well in terms of income when compared with all employed women, every income study finds that women lawyers’ income lags behind male lawyers’ income significantly. The theory of human capital would argue that women’s lower salaries are a consequence of their differential choices of employment—that they choose lower-paying jobs (e.g., in government) that provide the flexibility they need to juggle work and family (Chiu, 1999; Young & Wallace, 2009). The North Carolina sample supports this hypothesis in that proportionally more men work in private practices (77%) than women do (65%); women tend to work more frequently in government and other public sector jobs. This is similar to Hull & Nelson’s 2000 findings among Chicago lawyers. Despite this, we found no gender differences in the size of practice in which lawyers are employed, so women are working in large firms in equal numbers as men. Thus, it is unlikely that this small difference in private versus public employment accounts for the overall difference in personal income.

However, others argue that subtle as well as more blatant forms of discrimination exist among employers so that women’s options are restricted from the very beginning of their careers (Hull, 2000). In a complex data analysis, Hagan suggests a number of reasons that women lawyers’ income is lower than that of their male counterparts, and the differences are far greater than when presented simply as mean differences and when compared with other professions. Simply said, men are more likely to gain more from elite educations, managerial opportunities, specializations, and yearly salary increases (Hagan, 2007).

The data concerning women lawyers in North Carolina appear to agree with these earlier findings, as women more generally report experiencing discrimination and harassment in their occupation at far greater rates than the men report. This may not entirely be due to salary discrimination, however. Schultz & Shaw (2003) suggest that despite the legal profession’s efforts to assimilate women who are entering the profession in increasing numbers, women’s wider concerns are still being ignored, “leaving conventional legal practice untransformed in many important respects.”

Hagan (2007) agrees in his review, stating that, “Put simply: women enter firms at rates comparable to those for men, but they are more likely to leave (Brockman 1994; Reichman & Sterling 2002), and sooner (Kay 1997), while they earn less (Hagan 1990; Rhode 2001; Stager & Foot 1988) and are less likely to become partners (Donnell et al. 1998; Epstein et al. 1995; Hagan & Kay 1995; Radford 1990).” Our more current data support this, as women in our study (and others; see Hagan & Kay, 1995) report being significantly more likely to quit practicing in the next few years.

Yet, despite all this evidence, women and men in our study report no difference in their professional life satisfaction. A number of possibilities could explain this. First, our measure was a global measure of satisfaction; other studies have discovered that although women score higher on some facets of job satisfaction (e.g., the substance of their work), they score much lower on others (job setting, social index of work, and the power track) (Dinovitzer, et al., 2004). Elwork (1995) also reports that female lawyers’ satisfaction may be negatively influenced by their experience of more role conflicts—that “they, more than men, are pressured to delay or forgo childbearing, to assume unequal family responsibilities for child and elder care, or to parent children alone.” Once again, our data support these previous findings in that proportionally, more women in our study (25.5%) are unmarried than men (15.7%), a finding that is echoed in the literature about professional women who feel compelled to place their career before a personal life if they want to succeed in their profession. Certainly, other factors not captured by our questionnaire contribute to women’s sense of discrimination.

To better explain women lawyers’ professional life satisfaction, we conducted a multiple regression analysis. This useful statistical analysis captures the influence of multiple variables on professional life satisfaction in one process, rather than more simplistic analyses that examine variables one at a time. When considering all of the many issues investigated in our survey, only five (two negative and three positive) predict professional life satisfaction for women. Negative influences include working in a stressful workplace and having to work on weekends; positive influences include having higher personal income, having more supportive co-workers, and being more committed to one’s profession. This is a very different model than for men, whose professional satisfaction is similarly influenced by having coworker support and being committed to their role as lawyers, but additionally influenced by having sufficient material resources to do their jobs and being physically healthy. Men’s professional satisfaction is negatively influenced by being faced with ethical compromises and by needing others’ approval. (Note—all items are listed in descending order of importance). Thus, it is clear that men and women have different needs to be satisfied with their professional life, and that the occupational factors that may be subject to discriminative practices (i.e., personal income) are important influences.

To provide a richer picture of gender differences, we conducted some additional statistical tests. In terms of professional role, being a lawyer is more salient to women’s rather than men’s identity. Conversely, men are more committed than women to their role identities as lawyers, yet this role commitment is of equal importance to both men’s and women’s professional life satisfaction. In terms of personal traits, women report significantly higher levels of overachieving, perfectionism, and needing others’ approval. Nevertheless, needing others’ approval is important to men’s professional satisfaction but not to women’s satisfaction, despite the gender differences.

Men and women differ in their personal histories as well. More women than men in our study report having parents with psychiatric problems, and more women report experiencing emotional and sexual abuse as a child. Statistically, more women than men report that their spouse or partner has alcohol and other drug problems, but the difference is so small as to be unimportant, practically. Similarly, a few differences in alcohol and other drug use are evident, but these are, again, not practically important differences (e.g., values for 12-month use of marijuana are 1.08 for women and 1.27 for men, placing them both in the 1-2 times per year range).

Given all this evidence—that women lawyers have troubled personal histories at greater rates than men, have more demanding personal traits such as perfectionism and needing others’ approval, and experience discrimination in a variety of areas of their professional lives when being a lawyers is quite salient to their personal identity—one would expect them to be at greater risk for personal problems as well. Yet for the women in our sample, this is not the case. Women’s rates of burnout and depression are no different from the men’s rates, which is a remarkable finding because in the general population, women experience depression at least twice as much as men. Women in this sample also do not drink alcohol more than the men drink. Similar to reports in the general population, men drink alcohol more days per week than women drink, and reports of the most drinks consumed in a single day are greater for men (average = 6 drinks) than for women (average = 4 drinks). In addition, on the typical measure for average amount of alcohol consumption (average number of days drinking per week x average number of drinks per day), women and men in our study show no differences.

Thus, women in our study are a hardy lot, working like the men, having issues that place them at risk for distress, but reporting no additional personal or professional distress. However, one additional difference may be at play in this study. As a group, men graduated from law school much earlier (average year = 1984) than women (average year = 1993); as a group, women are professionally more junior. To examine if this variable is important, we conducted additional analyses that compared women lawyers who graduated before 1995 (49%) with those who graduated in 1995 or more recently (51%).

Despite the difference in professional (and chronological) age, recent graduates and earlier graduates score no differently in levels of perceived discrimination, harassment, burnout, depression, and most of the alcohol and other drug measures. Among the personality characteristics, the only difference is that the recent graduates report needing others’ approval more so than earlier graduates report this. Although not statistically significant, recent graduates tend to report slightly higher levels of overall burnout, and they are especially (statistically significantly) reporting higher scores on “I feel frustrated by my job.”

Although both groups have equivalent scores on mental and physical self-report measures, recent women graduates report consuming more alcohol drinks in a single day (4.8) than the earlier graduates, who report 3.5 drinks in a single day. This may reflect the general population estimates that younger people tend to binge drink more, especially those in college or who are recent graduates.

Given these differences between women who are more recent law school graduates and those who graduated before 1995, it may not be surprising that the recent graduates more frequently work when feeling “too distressed to be effective” than earlier graduates. This same group of recent graduates also states that they are more likely to stop practicing law in the next few years for reasons other than retirement. This last question is an important indicator of intention to quit, meaning that the law profession will be losing their young women lawyers at a time when their expertise and recent training could make important contributions to the field.

So what does one conclude from all this information? Rosin suggests that our “white-collar economy values raw intellectual horsepower, which men and women have in equal amounts. It also requires communication skills and social intelligence, areas in which women, according to many studies, have a slight edge. Perhaps most important—for better or worse—it increasingly requires formal education credentials, which women are more prone to acquire, particularly early in adulthood.” If so, then all professions, including the law, need to find ways not just to eliminate the persistent and pervasive discrimination that exists, but also to embrace the kinds of potential that the robust North Carolina women lawyers bring to the table. The American Bar Report (2001) cited by Hagan & Kay (2007) is the most recent available comprehensive review, and it concludes from a wide range of research that, “women’s opportunities are limited by traditional gender stereotypes, by inadequate access to mentors and informal networks of support, by inflexible workplace structures, and by other forms of gender bias in the justice system.” These issues are amenable to change, as are more obvious differences such as personal income. If the profession wishes to reduce the number of women leaving the profession, retaining the attributes that would serve the profession well, it must invest in the changes that would allow women equal treatment and access to leadership positions. It is not a zero-sum game; men are not diminished when women are advanced. Instead, by affirming women’s unique contributions, the entire profession is enriched, its members’ health and well-being are improved, and the legal profession’s values of social justice and equal opportunity are upheld.

By Darcy Clay Siebert

Darcy Siebert, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Rutgers School of Social Work.


American Bar Association (2006). Charting Our Progress: The Status of Women in the Profession Today. Commission on Women in the Profession. Chicago: American Bar Association.

Brockman, J. (1994) Leaving the practice of law: The wherefores and the whys. Alberta Law Review, 32, 116-80.

Chiu, C. (1998). Do professional women have lower job satisfaction that professional men? Lawyers as a case study. Sex Roles, 38, 521-537.

Dinovitzer, R., et al. (2004) After the JD: First results of a national study of legal careers. Chicago: NALP Foundation for Law Career Research and Education and the American Bar Foundation.

Donnell, C., et al. (1998) Gender penalties: The results of the careers and compensation study. Monograph published by the Colorado Women’s Bar Association.

Elwork, A., & Benjamin, G. A. H. (1995). Lawyers in distress. Journal of Psychiatry and the Law, 25, 205-229.

Epstein, C. F., Saute, R., Oglensky, B., & Gever, M. (1995). Glass ceilings and open doors: Women’s advancement in the legal profession. Fordham Law Review, 64, 291–449.

Hagan, J. (1990). The gender stratification of income inequality among lawyers. Social Forces, 68, 835–855.

Hagan, J., & Kay, F. M. (1995). Gender in practice: A study of lawyers’ lives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hagan, J., & Kay, F. M. (2007). Even lawyers get the blues: Gender, depression, and job satisfaction. Law & Society Review, 41, 51-78.

Hull, K. E. (1999). The paradox of the contented lawyer. Law & Society Review, 33, 687-700.

Hull, K. E., & Nelson, R. L. (2000). Assimilation, choice, or constraint? Testing theories of gender differences in the careers of lawyers. Social Forces, 79, 229-264.

Kay, F. (1997) Flight from law: A competing risks model of departures from law firms, Law & Society Review, 31, 301-35.

Radford, M. (1990) Sex stereotyping and the promotion of women to positions of power. Hastings Law Journal, 41, 471-535.

Rhode, D. L. (2000). In the interests of justice: Reforming the legal profession. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Reichman, N. J., & Sterling, J. S. (2002) Recasting the brass ring: Deconstructing and reconstructing workplace opportunities for women lawyers. Capital University Law Review, 29, 923-77.

Rosin, H. 2010. The end of men. Atlantic, July/August.

Schultz, U., & Shaw, G. (2003) Women in the World’s Legal Professions. Oxford, United Kingdom: Hart.

Stager, D., & Foot, D. (1988) Changes in lawyers’ earnings: The impact of differentiation and growth in the Canadian legal profession. Law & Social Inquiry, 13, 71-85.

Young, M. C, & Wallace, J. E. (2009). Family responsibilities, productivity, and earnings: A study of gender differences among Canadian Lawyers. Journal of Family Economic Issues, 30, 305-319.


Close to ten years ago, the members of the Consortium for Professional Recovery Programs began discussing a collaborative project to survey North Carolina professionals. This consortium, comprised of representatives from medicine, law, dentistry, pharmacy, psychology, nursing, and social work, met regularly to discuss methods to improve the behavioral health issues experienced by their professionals. The consortium members believed that both services and policy could be improved if they had current data about the behavioral health and occupational issues facing their memberships. Over the next several years, the consortium members worked together to develop a comprehensive set of issues that were relevant to all the professions, along with issues that were idiosyncratic to each discipline. The results of this collaborative effort provided the foundation for the development of “Work and Well-Being: A Survey of North Carolina Professionals.” Through the tireless efforts of consortium members, the project was refined through an iterative process, ensuring the scientific validity and the professional relevance of the findings. The results of this project, ultimately funded and implemented last year, are summarized herein.

We mailed questionnaires to a probability sample of members of the North Carolina State Bar, and we received 390 usable responses. The questionnaire was lengthy, and it included occupational items about workplace and workload, behavioral health questions about alcohol and other drug use, depression, and burnout, along with demographic items. The survey was anonymous; that is, the identity of the respondents could not be connected to the information they provided. As a result, most respondents answered all the items, and many provided written comments as well.

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