Print Page | Contact Us | Sign In | Register
DECEMBER 2014 - Bet Tzedek
Share |

Breaking Barriers

by Elissa Barrett

The glass ceiling is the unseen barrier that keeps minorities and women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements.” 

-  Federal Glass Ceiling Commission of the U.S. Department of Labor (1995)

Jessica Kornberg was an associate at a local litigation boutique, having climbed several rungs on the “corporate ladder” to arrive at that post:  Editor in Chief of the UCLA School of Law Women’s Law Journal, Helena Rubenstein Foundation Fellow at NOW/Legal Momentum, clerk for the Honorable Jon Phipps McCalla, Chief Judge of the Western District of Tennessee, Executive Director of Ms. JD, and Governing Board member of California Women Lawyers.  On December 1, 2014, she became Bet Tzedek’s first female CEO.  With Kornberg’s appointment, Bet Tzedek joins the growing ranks of legal services organizations led by women. 

Ten years ago, barely a handful of the top 15 legal services organizations in California were led by women.  Today, women run nearly half of those same organizations.  Ten years ago, women like Ramona Ripston (ACLU of Southern California), Nancy Mintie (Inner City Law Center), and Pegine Grayson (Western Center on Law and Poverty), were among the few female executive directors at Los Angeles-based public interest law groups.  Today, Silvia Argueta at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles leads a pack of impressive female CEO’s whose ranks include veterans Catherine Blakemore (Disability Rights California) and Janis Spire (Alliance for Children’s Rights), and newcomers Kornberg (Bet Tzedek) and Kathryn Tucker (Disability Rights Law Center).  Look past the CEO seat at those organizations and at the ones led by men, and you will find women in executive positions ranging from general counsel and chief financial officer to directors of litigation and development.

A similar phenomenon is visible among government lawyers, where women increasingly hold seats of power as elected and appointed officials.  In this respect, the list of Los Angeles legal luminaries is long and strongly connected to the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles (WLALA), including District Attorney Jackie Lacey; the Mayor’s Director of Gang Reduction and Youth Development Anne Tremblay; and former LA Police Commission inspector general Nicole Bershon.   The bench is no exception to this trend.  Women now occupy four out of seven seats on the California Supreme Court, and local women’s bar associations like WLALA play a significant role in placing women on the bench at the Superior Court and Federal District Court level with the Honorable Nicole Bershon, Michelle Williams Court, Holly Fujie and Beverly O’Connell to name a few.  Law schools follow the same pattern with Rachel Moran, Susan Westerberg Prager and Deanelle Reece Tacha commanding UCLA, Southwestern and Pepperdine law schools, respectively.

Contrast these “glass smashing” trends with rates of women in leadership in the legal profession’s private sector.  The difference is stark.  According to the 2014 American Bar Association’s Report on Women in the Profession, women constitute 48% of law school graduates, 51% of judicial clerks and 45% of law firm associates; yet, women constitute only 21% of Fortune 500 general counsels, 17% of law firm equity partners, 4% of managing partners and less than 1% of Am Law 200 firm top governing committees.   Disappointingly, recent Bureau of Labor Statistics reports place women lawyers along with all other women in the United States who, on average, make 78 cents to every dollar earned by their male colleagues. 

One has to wonder at why such a contrast in leadership exists between the public/service and private/corporate sectors of the legal profession.  The most oft-cited reason is that public/service oriented jobs give women the flexibility to more effectively balance the demands of their jobs with their responsibilities as caregivers for children and elders.  But, that reasoning explains why women are in the public/service sector, not why they are leading it.   What would it illuminate if we asked:  What are we doing right in the public/service sector that the private/corporate sector has yet to master?

According to a series of articles in the September 2013 issue of the Harvard Business Review, women in corporate settings face “second generation” gender bias.  While the more blatant forms of discrimination and exclusion have decreased, this form of bias continues to operate in the private sector.  The powerful forms of “second generation” bias most women still face include: (1) a paucity of role models for women, (2) segregation of women in gendered career paths with lack of opportunity for advancement, (3) lack of access to networks and mentors (particularly sponsors who nominate junior colleagues for institutional promotion), and (4) the “double bind” – being written off as too soft or emotional if we exhibit feminine characteristics (empathy and selflessness) and dismissed as arrogant or abrasive if we exhibit so-called masculine characteristics (assertiveness, confidence, task/goal orientation).  No wonder top women executives like Janet Yellen (Federal Reserve Board), Michele Roberts (National Basketball Players Association), Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), Ginni Rometty (IMB) and Indra Nooyi (Pepsico) who break this barrier are paraded before the rest of us as heralds of a new era.

Perhaps the distinguishing characteristic of the public/service oriented sector of the legal profession is that there are role models for women; we are put in career paths with opportunities for advancement; we do have access to powerful networks and mentors (clearly evident in the relationships so many of us have built through WLALA); and we can more effectively confront the “double bind” when we inevitably encounter it because we have female and male colleagues willing to break down that particular barrier when it rears its ugly head.

Perhaps the public/service sector more frequently rewards the leadership skills of women – strategic, inspirational, entrepreneurial, team oriented, risk-taking, authentic, practical – as the hallmarks of a “transformational” leader.  “A transformational leader acts as an inspirational role model, motivates others to go beyond the confines of their job descriptions, encourages creativity and innovation, fosters good human relationships, and develops the skills of followers,” wrote Northwestern University psychology professor Alice H. Eagly last year in The New York Times.  Eagly asserts that women excel at transformational leadership because they are more adept at blending its mix of masculine and feminine social skills.   Nor is Eagly alone.  Colleagues writing for Forbes, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, Huffington Post and the Washington Times all claim that women possess valuable and unique skills that translate into higher rates of innovation, accountability and growth in businesses that build gender diverse leadership teams.

So, welcome Ms. Kornberg (and Bet Tzedek) to the growing cohort of leaders and organizations who have recognized that perhaps, just perhaps, women leaders really do make a difference.  

Elissa Barrett is WLALA's Bet Tzedek Liasion and the Vice-President and General Counsel of Bet Tzedek Legal.