BOSTON — When Christine Lagarde was named the top partner at Baker & McKenzie law firm in Chicago last Thursday, women lawyers across the country undoubtedly shared a celebratory cheer for her impressive achievement.
Baker & McKenzie is the second-largest law firm in the world, and 91 percent of its 548 partners are men. Among the 20 largest law firms in the United States, only one other has a woman in the top job.
Ms. Lagarde's election serves as a welcome sign that women are finally reaching the upper echelons in a profession that has been slower than many to promote them. At least five of the top 100 law firms in the US have promoted women to the highest post within the past year.
This is also a progressive season for women in other fields. In July Hewlett-Packard appointed Carleton Fiorina as its CEO, making her the highest-ranking female in the computer industry. And in politics, Elizabeth Dole is among the hopefuls seeking the Republican presidential nomination.
Lagarde, who is married and the mother of two sons, offers this advice to professional women: "Never try to imitate what the boys do."
Yet imitating the boys is exactly what many high-level women find they still must do to compete. Just ask Aisling Sykes, a former vice president of J.P. Morgan in London. Four hours after Mrs. Sykes gave birth to a premature baby, her department head - a woman - phoned her at the hospital. The call wasn't a solicitous inquiry about the well-being of mother or baby. It was about - what else? - work.
Later Sykes, the mother of four, was fired after the company allegedly rejected her offer to work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the office and from home in the evening.
Sykes is now suing on grounds of unfair dismissal and sex discrimination. Her case is attracting widespread interest among other women in London's financial district, the City. They applaud her - anonymously, of course, out of fear of losing their own jobs - for challenging the City's "macho values" and "aggressive culture." As one London banker who is the mother of two children sees it, a woman must still be "prepared to behave like a man" to succeed.
In politics, the challenges can take other forms but still lead back to the family. Anita Perez Ferguson, a political consultant in Santa Barbara, Calif., who has just finished a term as president of the National Women's Political Caucus, sees heartening advances.
"The number of women in the leadership of both parties has grown exponentially," she says. But she adds, "We need to make more rapid progress than we've been making for the last 50 years."
In an interview in Cambridge, Mass., last week, Ms. Perez Ferguson charted the changing obstacles women have faced in running for office. In the 1970s, the biggest hurdle was "just know-how - learning how to put together a campaign plan."
In the '80s, she continues, "It dawned on women very quickly that the obstacle they faced was putting together money." That was the decade when fund-raising groups specifically for women, such as EMILY's List and the Women's Campaign Fund, were developed.
Today money is getting easier to raise, Perez Ferguson says. But she sees another problem looming in the minds of some current and potential candidates, this one family-related.
"In the '90s, especially after all the Clinton impeachment proceedings and inquiries, women candidates time and again say the biggest obstacle is their fear of the media - the exposure for themselves and their families, especially their personal lives," she says. Two researchers are now gathering data to quantify the problem.
Still, Perez Ferguson remains optimistic about the 2002 elections. The census and resulting redistricting always create new seats, she says. "In 1992, the Year of the Woman, almost every woman who came into office came into a new seat or an open seat but did not challenge an incumbent. The same thing will happen in 2002."
By then, more women will also have joined Lagarde and Ms. Fiorina at the highest corporate levels, presumably finding new ways to chart their own course and avoid "imitating what the boys do." They can test for themselves the truth - or falsity - of the adage, "It's lonely at the top." Lonely maybe, but also potentially rewarding, not only for themselves but for those they serve.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society