I don’t know what to make of the study, conducted by business professors from the University of Michigan and Temple University, that purports to find a negative correlation between political conservatism among some law firm partners and the advancement of the careers of female attorneys in reporting to those same partners.

To put that in plainer English: According to this study, if you’re a female lawyer and your mentor is a conservative Republican male, you might as well trade in your briefcase for an apron because you ain’t going anywhere, Honey. (I might be exaggerating a bit.)

As my regular readers know, I am skeptical of sociological studies about workplace sex discrimination, and especially sociological studies that seem like they may be in search of “data” that support an agenda. One reason that I question the UM-Temple study is that I have worked with many conservative Republican males in my career, and nearly all of them have been great. (I can’t think of a bad one, although I say “nearly” to give myself an out in case I’ve forgotten one.) And great not just to me, but also to less experienced women coming up through the ranks.

All of which leads me to wonder whether a university professor in, e.g., Ann Arbor — just a wild guess, but maybe he’s not a conservative Republican? — might have some biases of his own that could have resulted in a poorly designed study or skewed the results.

  • First, I question whether serving on a law firm diversity committee correlates with being a great mentor of women attorneys. (According to the study, “liberal” men are more likely to serve on law firm diversity committees than “moderate” and “conservative” men. Now, there’s a shock. I know a lot of men who wouldn’t want to be within 100 miles of a diversity committee — and they’re still great guys, very fair-minded, and respectful of women. And pro-diversity.)
  • Second, I question the study’s focus on mergers and acquisitions departments. In other words, “deals.” I would consider this area of the law to be “family-unfriendly,” which probably means that women aren’t terribly attracted to it long-term — not necessarily because of bias but because you have to be hard-charging at all hours when a deal is going through. That’s tough if you care about spending time with your kids, which a lot of women (and men) still want to do. I wonder what the result would have been if the professors had chosen to look at other legal specialties that are more conducive to having a life.
  • Third, I find the timing of this study, which finds that women don’t thrive at law firms where the partner is a member of one particular political party — coming out during a very contentious presidential election year — to be a bit convenient
  • Fourth, I question the relationship between cause and effect. According to the study, turnover of women attorneys is higher when the partners are conservative, Republican-supporting males. Is that necessarily because conservative Republican partners are bad to work for? Or could there be other reasons? Is it possible that young women lawyers — who may tend to be more “liberal,” idealistic, and diversity-minded than the 55-year-old male partners they report to (just a guess on my part – I could be wrong) — themselves prefer more “liberal” environments? And just how many “liberal” male M&A partners are there, anyway?

All that said, I have an open mind. I can see how someone who believed in traditional male-female roles (which I suspect doesn’t always correlate with “conservatism,” much less “Republicanism”) might be less inclined to hire or promote a female associate out of concerns that she might be unable to fully dedicate herself to the practice of law because of family responsibilities or might quit in her prime to be a full-time wife and mother. Whether that’s actually true or not. Maybe a “traditional” law partner would also encourage her to stay home with a new baby instead of coming back to work. And maybe he’d be more worried about creating a “near occasion of sin” by working closely (and, on an M&A team, at all hours) with a younger woman.

Maybe men with less-traditional values don’t worry so much about these things, meaning they’re less reluctant to work with young women.

Who knows? I don’t. Here’s the study. I’d love to hear what you think.