Written by Corinne Garcia Tuesday, May 29 2012
Snapshot: Laurel Bellows, President-Elect, American Bar Association
With a focus on counseling senior executives as a principle in the firm The Bellows Law Group, Laurel Bellows has had an in-depth look at the disparity between men and women in workplace. What she’s seen is that women aren’t always receiving the same sign-on bonuses, salaries and titles, and as a woman and a lawyer trained to fight injustices, this is one that she is passionate about. As she prepares to step into the role of president of the American Bar Association (ABA), Bellows discusses the need for equality and how women can help get themselves there.
Womenetics: You're a self-described feminist; have you always been this way?
Laurel Bellows: I was fortunate to have a mother who always taught me the necessity of economic independence as a woman. She reinforced my confidence by telling me that I could be anything I wanted to be – whether it was a lawyer or a businesswoman.
However, I did not fully understand the lack of equality in America until I attended law school and realized that there were only a handful of women in my class. It opened my eyes to the reality that not all are afforded equal opportunity in this country.
When I negotiate employment contracts for women and men in senior executive positions, I see firsthand that women are often disadvantaged in these agreements. Often they don’t receive the same sign-on bonuses or equality that men are offered, nor do they get the same pay or titles. As a result, I advocate for equality of pay and ensuring that the number of women corporate leaders increases when negotiating these contracts.
Womenetics: The ABA fights for equality for women. Can you explain why there is a need for that?
Bellows: Lawyers are skilled advocates. We’re trained to fight injustice. Barriers to the equal advancement of women persist, and our skills are needed to fight for equal opportunity for all women, not just women lawyers.
The ABA recognizes that discrimination — although less blatant, more subconscious and more subtle — continues to exist, which is a fact that surprises most women born after 1980. Millennials in the workplace believe that discrimination was overcome by earlier generations of female lawyers and businesswomen. But even today, the results of discrimination in pay and promotion are devastating, affecting business opportunities offered to women, employment decisions and evaluations of women’s performance.
Womenetics: Can you explain what the inequality today looks like?
Bellows: Today, women profoundly impact their professions. They make up nearly half the U.S. population and total work force, earn 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 60 percent of master’s degrees and control or influence 73 percent of consumer decisions in America.
Yet women continue to earn just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men performing substantially similar work. And among Fortune 500 companies, women make up approximately 3.6 percent of CEOs and hold only about 16 percent of board seats. In 2011, women made up just 7.5 percent of executive officer top earning positions within the Fortune 500.
In law firms, over the past 10 years, the percentage of women equity partners has increased only 2 percent from 14 to 16 percent. At this rate, women will not achieve parity with men in law firm equity partnerships until 2086 — well after our children have retired.
Womenetics: What kind, if any, inequality issues did you face on your way up the ladder to where you are now?
Bellows: I wanted to be a trial lawyer, but the ideal litigator was generally expected to be an aggressive, white male. As a short, blond woman, I didn’t fit this image. I found it very difficult to get a position as a litigator because people underestimated me.
Luckily, I was hired by my future husband, Joel Bellows, and I was given the opportunity to advance my career and show that I had the skills, talent and capability to effectively litigate.
Womenetics: What do you see holding women back most in the law profession?
Bellows: Women are not speaking for themselves as negotiators on their own behalf. They are humble and don’t ask for what they want or brag about themselves. They have to learn to say, “I have been the leader on this project,” and let people know what they have accomplished. Even if they’re working on a team, they must assert that “it was my concept, and I brought it home.”
Women also don’t like to push at the onset. They think, “I will just trust them to do right by me.” For example, when negotiating an employment contract, they don’t want to press for the sign-on bonus, the early vesting of options and stock or for retirement health care.
Women believe that strong performance is the only prerequisite to success. It’s not only what you know and who you know, but also how you present yourself and whether you are willing to take risks demonstrating ability to your clients, developing strategic thinking and many intangibles.
Womenetics: What tips can you offer women in law and in other careers to help them advance?
Bellows: Women are great negotiators. They are natural communicators and relationship builders. So if they can sit down and build an instant relationship with someone across the table, then they can negotiate for themselves. Women just need confidence and some tips on how to negotiate. They need to just look in the mirror, practice a little and role-play. Or get a friend to tell them how to improve and then go out there and ask for it.
Women also have to build a book of business and be financially independent. They should take risks by accepting the stretch assignments. And they must make certain to treat every client as if that client were their only one and as if their world revolves around them.
Also, women need to network, network, network, whether it’s working on projects or getting involved with community organizations. They should make it a habit to attend an event every week and talk to someone outside their circle every day. The results will show. In a few months, a year, two years, even five years, the people they network with today will be able to give them business.
Find a mentor to teach you the “unwritten rules." Find a sponsor to advocate on your behalf when you are not available to press for quality assignments to come your way.
And women should be generous with advice and always help when they can.
Womenetics: What needs to happen in the U.S., in your opinion, to get a woman’s pay on par with a man’s?
Bellows: It won’t happen by itself over time. What will make a difference in the fight for equal pay is concerted action, projects and the support provided by Womenetics to other women.
During my presidency, the ABA will work to suggest model compensation policies to advance equitable pay in our nation’s law firms. We will also join forces with women’s groups across the U.S. to advocate for the passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act. This bill would create more transparency by allowing women to openly discuss and share wage information without fear of retaliation.
Womenetics: Can you explain why it’s so important for women to support one another or mentor each other? Why don’t we do that more?
Bellows: When we support each other, we build a power base for women, which allows women to speak out on issues without retaliation. One person can affect change, but together we have a bigger impact and will see faster progress.
We have a responsibility to share the unwritten rules of practicing law with our sisters. Women who are just beginning their careers need guidance and support from women mentors along with help in getting opportunities to advance in their careers.
True, women rarely have spare time. Yet, in my experience, women are supporting each other. They are learning the benefits, like men learned long ago, of building power bases and bringing other women up the ladder behind them.
As a result of the advent of Title IX (which legally banned gender-based exclusion from publicly-funded education programs or activities) and the growing popularity of women’s sports, women are learning they can compete and support each other at the same time.
Womenetics: How did you persevere? What kept you going in tough times?
Bellows: I have been fortunate to practice law with my husband, who is my encouragement and support. My support network of friends and family keeps me going.
Plus, knowing that my purpose is to promote equality for women and access to justice has made a huge difference. It motivates me each day and gives me the confidence to push forward.
Womenetics: Who are your female mentors?
Bellows: Esther Rothstein, the first woman president of the Chicago Bar, was my mentor. Currently, my female mentors are those in my support system — my peers and my friends, lawyers and non-lawyers — most of whom are involved in the causes I have undertaken. Plus, I am fortunate to have an incredible support team of women at the ABA.
Womenetics: What do you do for fun outside of work? And why is this time important to you?
Bellows: For the next year, fun outside of work is the ABA.
At the ABA, we have a motto: Defending Liberty and Pursuing Justice. These words guide me every day as I travel around the country and the world in support of our mission for liberty, equal justice and equality for all.
Read about more women attorneys using their legal prowess for good:
In 1992, Azizah al-Hibiri became the first Muslim woman law professor in the U.S. and over the last decade has explored hot button legal issues from an Islamic perspective.
Janice Brown found peace in shifting her professional mantra from "I'm a lawyer" to "I am a human being that practices law."
When Rita Sheffey isn't litigating complex environmental law and trademark infringement cases, she rallies other attorneys to get serious about pro bono work.
Corinne Garcia is a freelance writer and editor living with her husband and two young boys in Bozeman, Mont. She has also written for Women’s Adventure, Christian Science Monitor, Northwest Travel, Pregnancy, Fit Pregnancy and Fit Parent.