A Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging event examines barriers to women’s career advancement

Obstacles to women’s career progression and the cultural change needed to drive gender equality in the age of COVID-19 were the subject of a lively discussion between Professor Robin Ely of Harvard Business School and Kenji Yoshino, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law, on October 27. 

Women comprise about 20 percent of equity partners at law firms, as Yoshino noted when he opened the conversation, which was co-sponsored by the Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging and the Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network. “Why in your view is women’s advancement into high level positions, so stagnant in professions like law, which prides itself on being an engine of social justice?” he asked. 

Ely described narratives and structures that hinder women’s advancement into senior roles. Among other points, she suggested that while flexible work policies are implemented to help achieve work-life balance, they often harm women by attaching a stigma that associates work accomodations with an unwillingness to work long hours.

Watch the full discussion on video:

Selected remarks from the discussion:

Robin Ely: “There are lots of fantastic studies that are happening right now and we do see some early findings. And I think it’s really pretty clear from everything that I’ve seen so far that the whole pandemic has had a very negative impact on women and disproportionately so.…Women are spending much more time being in charge of the home schooling, they’re also…more likely to have reduced their work hours, they’re more likely to have quit, they’re more likely to have lost their jobs because they tend to be in sectors that are harder hit by COVID, and I’ve seen some work saying that they’re also more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety since the pandemic.” (video 21:19)

Ely: “My men students believe that there’s something about being female that makes a person better able to care for the family. And so they just assume that that is not a role that they are equipped for…There’s no empirical evidence to support that. And so one of the things that I would love to see and try to encourage in men is to, you know, really get in touch with what’s important to them and not buy into what the culture is telling them they’re good at, or that they’re supposed to be good at, or what success looks like. And it’s the same for women. I mean, part of the problem is just absorbing the cultural narratives and the cultural expectations.” (video 50:50)