Researchers at Vanderbilt Law School have found an alarming disparity in the job satisfaction rates between recent male and female law graduates, as detailed in a forthcoming research paper in the Marquette Law Review. The researchers discovered that “recently graduated female lawyers are 19 percentage points less likely to state that they are very satisfied with their current job compared to their male counterparts.” Specific characteristics of the legal profession seem to be causing this dissatisfaction among female lawyers, as the researchers found “that a male-female satisfaction gap exists only among JDs, and not among those with other professional or graduate degrees.” The researchers believe that this dissatisfaction is causing an exodus of female lawyers from the profession. Women only represent 36 percent of practicing attorneys and 18 percent of equity partners at law firms, despite the fact that women and men have been graduating from U.S. law schools at similar rates for decades.
The American Bar Association has suggested that the female exodus from the legal profession may be caused by unconscious bias against women, the gender pay gap, and the lack of work/life balance. But, interestingly, the Vanderbilt researchers concluded that work/life balance is actually not a cause of the male-female satisfaction gap, as working long hours or having a child under 19 did not negatively affect female lawyers’ job satisfaction. In fact, the researchers found that “women who work longer hours are actually more satisfied than women who work fewer hours, even after controlling for salary, supervisory status, and employer type.”
The researchers identified a number of possible reasons why the professional experiences of female lawyers are “particularly unpleasant when compared to men in the profession.” They agreed with the American Bar Association that unconscious bias against women is one of the most likely explanations, as demonstrated by the growing number of lawsuits alleging that law firms mistreat female lawyers. The researchers also noted that lawyers graduate with unusually high rates of debt, which may burden female lawyers more than their male counterparts due to the gender pay gap. Finally, the researchers noted that female lawyers may “experience disenchantment with legal practice before they even begin their careers[,]” as “[r]esearch on experiences in law school find that women are less likely to participate in class, less likely to find faculty mentors, [and] more likely to experience mental health distress.”
Thankfully, many brave female lawyers have already begun tackling these inequities by bringing lawsuits seeking to end the gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and wage disparities that are far too common in the legal profession. While these lawsuits are an important start, it is imperative that the entire legal profession take immediate action to identify and address the causes of this gender disparity in job satisfaction.