Andrea “Andie” Kramer is a partner in the international law firm of McDermott Will & Emery LLP and a globally recognized expert on financial products. Additionally, in July 2011 she was named board chair of the Chicago Foundation for Women (CFW). Established in 1985, CFW improves the lives of women and girls through grants, advocacy, leadership development and public and grantee education, with a focus on economic security, freedom from violence, and health services and information. Kramer also is a co-founder of the nonprofit Women’s Leadership and Mentoring Alliance (WLMA) and is a founding board member and past chair of The Women’s Treatment Center, an outpatient alcohol and substance abuse treatment facility. A portion of the proceeds from sales of jewelry on her recently launched Andie K site benefit women and children charities in the U.S.

When Ginni Rometty recently was named CEO of IBM, a headline in one New York paper asked, “What Glass Ceiling?” So is that it? Is the struggle against workplace inequality all over as an issue?

I wouldn’t think so. I think it’s very exciting that Ginni Rometty has achieved that. And my sense is that we are making some progress and that it’s not as bad as it was back in the old days. But the path for professional women is still rocky and steep. To declare success and go home is obviously not the right response.

Look at lawyers, where 50% of the graduating classes from law schools are women yet at the top levels 10%-15% max are women. In the judiciary and academia, too, only 15% are women. If 50% of the pool turns into 15%, you can’t tell me we’ve made it.

You’re involved not only with the Chicago Foundation with Women but also with the Women’s Leadership & Mentoring Alliance and other organizations that try to help women achieve all that they can be. What is most needed now to make that happen?

For 10 years or so I’ve been writing and speaking about problems that women have with communication differences between men and women. There are differences in how they speak. One consequence is that often the way that women ask a ton of questions and are curious and want to make sure they have the assignment just right can make a male senior executive roll his eyes. Men don’t even ask for directions, and here you may have a woman asking a thousand questions. A man may assume she’s a pinhead when really it’s just a style issue

So I’ve tried to bring these issues to the light. It can be an advantage to women if they understand these differences so they don’t misinterpret responses, and it’s also important for men, too. Men need to understand that because a woman may not communicate in the same way it doesn’t mean they’re not smart or capable. This is one of the things that I think discourage women. And if you’re really discouraged you’re going to ask, “Why am I doing this? Is there something else I can do that would be more rewarding?”

It’s interesting that you say that because just the other day I read about a study from More magazine that finds that 43% of the women surveyed say they are less ambitious now than they were a decade ago. Of the 500 women age 35 to 60 interviewed, only a quarter say they’re working toward their next promotion.

Well, I don’t find that women are less ambitious. It’s obviously a different environment now. I’ve been doing this longer than some of the young people coming out of school have been alive. [Gender discrimination] is there but it is different now. In some ways, it’s more insidious. In the old days it was more obvious. It was, “Why should I count on you? For all I know you’ll go get married and want to raise a family. I’ll be wasting my time.” They don’t say that any more, but they do find ways to have their personal stereotypes still affect their evaluations of women’s performance.

Women don’t do better in school and then go out into the professional world and give half their brain back. There’s something else that’s going on here, and that’s what I’ve been writing and talking about.

What has been your experience? At what points did you feel unfair pushback on your development and how did you overcome it?

When I first got out of law school, I was deciding between one of Chicago’s biggest and most prestigious law firms and another firm that had just started and had seven lawyers. I went to the seven-lawyer firm. I don’t think they’d have cared if you had purple polka dots. There was work to be done and projects to handle.

When I left that firm and came to McDermott Will & Emery nearly 20 years ago, I was shocked at the different way that big firms operate. It wasn’t McDermott, it was all the firms, really. That’s what radicalized me.

Did it inhibit your rise?

No. I didn’t have the hurdles young women face because when I came to McDermott I had my clients and my own practice. For me it was a different experience. That’s why I try to give back. My vision is that women deserve the same chances and opportunities that men do. That’s what prompted me to do the speaking and writing that I do and create WLMA. We’re trying to deal with those sorts of issues so that women don’t feel less ambitious or discouraged.

Is mentoring something that can be most effective in helping women avoid discouragement?

In some ways, yes. When we first started our diversity committee here at McDermott, I put together a professional-development survey. One of the most things I found was that those people who checked that they had had a mentor, formal or informal, were much easier going about the technology system or this and that [other par of the business]. It seemed they were more resilient.

One of the key issues now is that women get mentored all the time. They get mentored to death. What they really need is a sponsor who is going to say, “You’re my person and I’m going to work to get you advanced.” That is something where the men have a disproportionate advantage over women.
Mentoring now means more than just telling someone, “Gee, you could have done that a little different.” It’s more about coaching and advocating. But it’s an important piece.

Did you benefit from mentors along your career path?

Absolutely. In my case, they were all men. I didn’t have any women I could go to. If you don’t have a champion in one form or another, that’s what WLMA’s about. We’re trying to find senior women who can mentor younger women. They don’t have to be in the same industry.

What’s the stereotype you’d want to eliminate first? Is it that women focus on family rather than careers?

Absolutely. All women need the same opportunities as men to get the good assignments, to be brought in with the big clients or the big projects or whatever in your field. That’s an issue that runs through a woman’s life as it does in a man’s life. But women don’t get always that access, and that’s a big issue.

But the question of focusing on family is not unique to women any more. At McDermott when we changed the rules to allow capital partners to work on a reduced-time basis, the first person who benefited was a man whose life was ill and he needed to tend to his children. So that’s changing.

Are you encouraged by the generation of women you see coming out of professional schools now?

I think so. A lot of the gender issues you need to experience for yourself. Young women coming out of law school may say, “I’ve never had any difficulties. What are you talking about?”

So they’re the ones asking “What glass ceiling?”

Exactly. And they can say that until their first experience with it. When I started our first gender-diversity committee at McDermott, there was a woman who was totally opposed to the whole idea. So I asked her to be on the committee with me. Six or so months into it, I got a call from her saying, “You know, I thought this was a bunch of b.s. Now I’m believer.” Things happened to her that made her realize that putting your head down and doing good work isn’t always enough for advancement.
Right now with the economy so bad, it’ very hard for us to tell what’s happening other than that it hurts women and minorities the most. Hopefully, we’re going to turn a corner soon.

What do you see as an emerging issue?

Performance-review policies have to be changed. There was an article recently in ABA Journal saying that women get better narratives in performance reviews, but then get lower numerical ratings [and may not be made partners]. Some people say it was because executives didn’t want to hurt women’s feelings, but these are confidential reports. So that’s not it.

There’s a disconnect between how men and women advance. That’s something that law firms have to address. Policies have to be implemented so that men don’t get points for being a go-getter while women are penalized for being “too ambitious.”

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One Response

  1. Karen Grazionale

    I’ve been in performance reviews where it is apparent that there is a belief that women are content not earning as much their male counterparts. I don’t know where this comes from. I would love to see an open salary system. I believe doing so would have a significant impact on peoples views and subsequently change behaviors.


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