Published March/ April 2022
In his commencement address to Kenyon College’s class of 2005, writer David Foster Wallace began by sharing the following story:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks, “What the hell is water?”
Wallace goes on to explain that the point of the fish story is to illustrate that “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
As the child of a single mother who raised me while simultaneously advancing her career in the medical field, the disparate regard toward women in professional settings has been visible to me from a young age. I’ve known other women who have struggled in their professional endeavors to gain an equal footing with their male counterparts and avail themselves of equal pay and opportunities. Despite this firsthand experience, I must admit, I still find it challenging to talk about the particular burdens faced by women in the workplace because, try as I may, I’m incapable of fully understanding the challenges professional women face, given the appanage of my race and gender. However, I do understand that merely sympathizing with women is neither sufficient nor helpful. What is helpful, indeed required, is to recognize the difficulties faced by women in the workplace, to hear how women ask to be supported professionally, and to actively sponsor women for promotion within the workplace and the judiciary.
Two caveats at the outset: first, although this article speaks in terms of men and women, the dichotomy should be considered more broadly to include all historically marginalized persons. Second, although this article speaks of women lawyers, the same principles should apply equally to women who are part of a firm’s broader team.
The mission of Idaho Women Lawyers (“IWL”) is to advance “diversity through the promotion of equal rights and opportunities for women in the legal profession.” This mission, as discussed herein, is best accomplished through bundling the efforts of men and women alike.
As of January 7, 2022, there were 5,420 active members of the Idaho Bar.1 In 2018, women accounted for just 28% of active lawyers in Idaho.2 The American Bar Association estimates that nationwide, the gender gap between men and women lawyers in practice is 63% to 37%, putting Idaho well below the nation’s average.3 Additionally, a study by the American Constitution Society found that in 2014, women made up only 30% of all state court judges nationwide.4 Again, in Idaho, the disparity is starker—in 2018, across the Idaho judiciary, women held only 32 of the 147 total judgeships.5 When broken down further to account for representation of other historically marginalized groups, the gap across the nation is even more severe.6
Diving deeper: for women lawyers, economic disadvantages based on gender ensue. A 2020 survey from the National Association of Women Lawyers found that despite making up on average 47% of law firm associates nationwide, women represent only 31% of non-equity partners and 21% of equity partners in those same firms.7 The gap in Idaho tracks the national average according to University of Idaho Professor Jessica Gunder, who showed that despite holding 35.2% of associate positions in large Idaho law firms in 2004, only 18.8% of women held partnership positions at the same firms in 2019.8
When these statistics are considered with the fact that women make up slightly more than 50% of the population in the United States,9 the disparity in representation of women as counselors at law and judges on the bench is especially discouraging. While a host of factors shed light on the facts behind this reality, men cannot ignore the fact that women as a whole are actively seeking greater representation within these bodies. In 2019, women made up 53.3% of all law students nationwide.10 Nevertheless, the proportion of representation of women in the upper echelons of law firms and on the bench fails to correlate. This is the water.
Turning the tide
In her November, 2018 TEDWomen talk, “How to Find the Person Who Can Help You Get Ahead at Work,” Carla Harris, a woman of color and Wall Street veteran, described the “aha moment” she experienced at her first corporate roundtable in 1988, where names of candidates for promotion were being rapidly categorized into “buckets” based on their value to the firm according to its decision makers.11 Sitting at that roundtable, Carla observed how as each candidate’s name was announced, somebody in the room spoke on the candidate’s behalf and explained their merits (or lack thereof), and that the candidate was quickly placed in a corresponding “bucket” based on the speaker’s recommendation; all with no discussion, and no input from the candidate themselves. Carla explained, “It was in that moment that I clutched my pearls and asked—who’s going to speak for me?”
Carla went on to say, “I knew at that moment that somebody would have to be behind closed doors arguing on my behalf, presenting content in such a way that other decision makers around that table would answer in my best favor,” because, Carla posited, “you cannot have a 100 percent meritocratic environment when there is a human element involved in the evaluative equation, because by definition, that makes it subjective.”
Vexed by the predicament of not having “that somebody,” not knowing what to call them or where to find them, Carla endeavored on a thought journey, which lasted a few years. Then one day, while speaking on the topic to MBA students at the University of Michigan, Carla realized, “Oh, this person that is carrying your interest, or as I like to say, carrying your paper into the room, this person who is spending their valuable political and social capital on you, this person who is going to pound the table on your behalf, this is a sponsor. This is a sponsor.”
In light of the forgoing, and recognition of the powerful and influential positions largely and historically held by men within the Idaho Bar, as well as the fact that promotions within law firms and the Bar generally occur behind closed doors by certain decision makers, there’s something men can do today to buoy representation and equality for women within the workplace and the judiciary, as the percentage of women to men grows in our field. Research suggests the key is to Sponsor women, because a concerted effort by men and women alike to sponsor women within the Idaho Bar can garner the equality of opportunity necessary to effect proportional representation, at least.
Although the words “sponsor” and “mentor” are often used interchangeably in common parlance, to sponsor means to take responsibility for someone or something;12 no such onus is denoted by the latter. A sponsor uses his or her position of power or influence to help further their protégé’s career. “A sponsor needs to know the skills and capabilities of their protégé, see their potential, and be able to orchestrate their advancement—but they don’t have to show them how to play the instrument or encourage them to practice.”13 Unlike a mentor, the sponsor and the protégé need not have the same economic goals—their glue is the goal of bolstering the position of the protégé.
The reputation of the Idaho Bar is that it is uniquely collegial, and that sponsorship abounds. This has been my experience as a relatively new attorney—I have had many willing sponsors “carry my paper” into the rooms where decisions are made. While not all of my sponsors have been men of my race, most of them have. The fact is: sponsors tend to select proteges who are like themselves. One explanation as to why this occurs is the unconscious bias of “like supporting like.”
Herminia Ibarra, Professor of Organization Behavior at the London Business School, asserts, “[p]eople’s tendency to gravitate to those who are like them on salient dimensions such as gender increases the likelihood that powerful men will sponsor and advocate for other men when leadership opportunities arise.”14 Ibarra’s theory is confirmed by a recent study by the Center for Talent and Innovation, which identified that 71% of executives in their study had proteges whose race and gender matched their own.15 As such, in order to effectuate equality of opportunity, and bridge the gap in gender disparities in representation and equality within law firms and courts in Idaho, more men in the majority must actively seek to break the unconscious bias chain by sponsoring women.
Ending her TED talk, Carla encouraged would-be sponsors; “If you have been invited into the room, know that you have a seat at that table, and if you have a seat at the table, you have a responsibility to speak . . . If somebody is worthy of your currency—spend it. One thing I have learned after several decades on Wall Street is the way to grow your power is to give it away, and your voice is at the heart.”16
Unsure how to be a sponsor? Ibarra explains that sponsorship is a spectrum, it’s not an either/or role.17 What begins as a mentorship may morph into a sponsorship, but the distinguishing mark of a sponsor is their election to put their name and reputation on the line for their protégé. Here are five things you can do to sponsor women in the legal profession, borrowed from Karen Catlin, founder of Better Allies.18
Speak your protégé’s name when they aren’t around
A true sponsor will not hesitate to spend some of their social capital advocating for their protégé to decision makers. Often, this is the most effective way for a decision maker to truly hear the sponsor’s accolades and advocacy of their protégé. In the confidence of a meeting where the protégé isn’t present, an inherent trust in the genuineness of the sponsor’s endorsement of her is cultivated.
Endorse your protégé publicly
Where the rubber truly hits the road for sponsorship is when the sponsor publicly endorses their protégé. This sort of public endorsement can take many forms. A sponsor may publicly endorse their protégé in front of important clients, partners in their firm, and members of the Bar. This, like the following tip, will help garner trust and reliance on the part of decision maker in the protégé.
Invite your protégé to high profile meetings
Inviting your protégé to participate in high profile meetings, whether with clients or other partners, demonstrates your vote of confidence in her. This sort of overt action also bolsters her visibility before decision makers and cultivates their confidence in her. Direct relationships between your protégé and the decision maker are more likely to follow when the decision maker’s confidence in your protégé is borrowed from their confidence in you.
Share your protégé’s career goals with decision-makers
For a sponsor to be able to share their protégé’s career goals, they must first understand where she is trying to go. Take time to understand your protégé’s career goals and then share them with the decision makers who can facilitate bringing those goals to fruition. Again, direct relationships between your protégé and the decision maker are more likely to follow when you help the decision maker recognize the role they can play in helping your protégé reach her goals.
Recommend your protégé for stretch-assignments and speaking opportunities
A sponsor who truly knows their protégé and her capabilities will not hesitate to recommend her for tasks which will allow her to develop credibility with others by demonstrating her skills. If you have true confidence in your protégé to succeed in an assignment, recommend her and continue to encourage her to success—the reward of her succeeding will be felt by you both.
The importance of sponsorship can’t be understated. If Carla Harris is correct in her assessment that there is no such thing as a true meritocracy, then those who reach new heights within an organization have almost certainly benefitted from a sponsor—someone “carrying their paper into the room.” Of course, this sponsorship paradigm necessitates cooperation between would-be sponsors and would-be protégés.
True sponsorship compels the sponsor to know their protégé’s goals, meaning that sponsorship should not be approached unilaterally in most cases; as such, would-be protégés have as much responsibility to seek or accept sponsorship as sponsors have to offer it. Nevertheless, as Ibarra explained, there is no strict formality required in sponsorship. This is important to bear in mind because some of your female colleagues may not be struggling to have a voice before decision makers, but rather to simply have your vote.
In short, what I advocate for here, is for those who have been, are, or will be in the position to be a sponsor, to recognize the unique opportunity you may have to turn the tide for the benefit of all in our profession, as well as those who we serve.
A Ritual to Read Each Other19
By William E Stafford
If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
Mo Haws is an associate at Morris Bower & Haws PLLC where his practice is focused on prosecution and defense in civil and commercial litigation. Mo is also the owner and founder of Kai–a law firm support company that connects practitioners with highly qualified contract attorneys and support staff.
1. Idaho State Bar Association Membership, https://isb.idaho.gov/licensing-mcle/membership-count-statuses/.
2.Jessica Gunder, “Women in Law: A Statistical Review of the Status of Women Attorneys in Idaho” (2019) (referencing Idaho Supreme Court Data found in 2018), available at https://digitalcommons.law.uidaho.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1189&context=faculty_scholarship.
3. Id. at 34; see also American Constitution Society “The Gavel Gap—Who Sits in Judgment on State Courts,” available at https://www.acslaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/gavel-gap-report.pdf.
4. American Constitution Society, “The Gavel Gap—Who Sits in Judgment on State Courts,” available at https://www.acslaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/gavel-gap-report.pdf.
5. Supra note 2.
6. In 2020, 86% of all attorneys in the United States identified as white. ABA National Lawyer Population Survey, available at https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/news/2020/07/potlp2020.pdf.
7. NAWL 2020 “Survey on Promotion and Retention of Women in Law Firms,” available at https://www.nawl.org/p/cm/ld/fid=2019,
8. Supra note 2.
9. U.S. Census Bureau, Census Quick Facts, https://www.census.gov/quick-facts/fact/table/US/PST045217.
11. Carla Harris, “How to Find to Find the Person Who Can Help You Get Ahead at Work” TEDWomen (2018), available at https://www.ted.com/talks/carla_harris_how_to_find_the_person_who_can_help_you_get_ahead_at_work.
12. Sponsor Definition, Merriam-Webster.com, https://www.merriam webster.com/dictionary/sponsor (last visited Jan. 13, 2022).
15. https://www.talentinnovation.org/_private/assets/TheSponsorDividend_KeyFindingsCombined-CTI.pdf?eminfo=%7b%22EMAIL%22%3a%22Hc8ZphJgxOZCTbtnlHI4qpefYRZ2I%2bKJ3ocalZtETZo%3d%22%2c%22BRAND%22%3a%22FO%22%2c%22CONTENT%22%3a%22Newsletter%22%2c%22UID%22%25 cited by https://hbr.org/2019/08/what-men-can-do-to-be-better-mentors-and-sponsors-to-women.
16. Supra note 6.
17. Supra note 14.
19. William Stafford, A Ritual to Read to Each Other, The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (1998).