For decades, law schools across the country have had relatively equal numbers of male and female students. Yet, as the decades wear on, law firms haven’t managed to reflect that sort of gender equality. Now two Connecticut lawyers have been tasked with trying to give women a stronger presence and voice in a male-dominated world.

Marsha Anastasia, vice president and deputy general counsel for Stamford-based Pitney Bowes, has been appointed president of the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL). Carmina Tessitore, who has her own practice in Shelton, recently became chairwoman of the Women in the Law Section of the Connecticut Bar Association.

The landscape is changing as data suggests, but not as fast as the women would like. “It’s chugging slowly along,” Anastasia said.

According to the NAWL, the nation’s 200 largest firms have told the national organization that they are committed to decreasing gender disparities in the industry and supporting programs to ensure those goals are met.

But those words have not always been backed by deeds. In 2006, the national organization launched the NAWL Challenge. The premise was simple: By 2015, the goal was to double the percentage—to 30 percent—of women equity partners within the top 200 firms, women general counsel at Fortune 500 corporations and women tenured law professors.

None of the goals was reached. In fact, the NAWL came close only in one area—about 28 percent of tenured law professors are now women. “We put this challenge out and hoped the industry would respond,” Anastasia said. “It’s very difficult to get to where we want.”

Every year, the NAWL publishes the results from a survey sent to the top 200 law firms about gender differences within their companies with hopes of finding out why it is so difficult for women to rise for leadership positions. “We haven’t given up,” Anastasia said, noting that the rapid increase in women in high-level government positions and elected office suggests that progress in the legal community might be coming soon. “You feel [a difference], the numbers just don’t show it,” Anastasia said.

According to the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession, in 2014 women constituted 34 percent of the legal workforce. Within corporations, the percentages are even lower, with only 21 percent of women acting as general counsel for Fortune 500 companies and 16.8 percent in Fortune 501-1000 companies.

Losing Sleep

Early in her career, Anastasia was hired by the firm now known as Day Pitney, but was soon sent on loan to Pitney Bowes for what was supposed to be four months. Those four months came and went and years later she’s still at Pitney Bowes.

In 2004, Anastasia attended her first NAWL event for general counsel. She remembers hearing a talk by Cathy Fleming, who would later become NAWL president, and coming away thinking that Fleming was saying everything she had thought her whole career but never put into words: Women can be powerful and they can get ahead in the male-dominated world of law.

“I was blown away by the women in the organization,” Anastasia said. Hooked, she soon became involved with the organization she now heads.

Anastasia said she’s never felt directly discriminated against in her profession because she is a woman. But she does have some personal insight into one reason women don’t rise to leadership roles.

“When I was younger, I would look to the older women role models and think, ‘How do you do it with kids?'” said Anastasia, who has three children. “I remember thinking I would never sleep. I kept looking for the secret answer.”

Instead she found there is no answer. “I just get less sleep,” she said.

Tessitore also talks about the struggle for work-life balance. She spent the early part of her career at large firms in southwest Connecticut.

“A big struggle is I have a very large, close-knit family and found it difficult to put in the hours for work and be there for the people that I love,” Tessitore said. “I left certain positions with the outlook that I wouldn’t be able to have a family if I stayed.”

As a result, she opened her own practice in Shelton two years ago. It gives her the flexibility to be where she needs to be.

But some women who leave firms to tend to young children find it difficult to re-enter the workforce, Tessitore said. After years away from the legal community, lawyers may not have the same contacts they once did, or may be behind when it comes to advances made in law or need to explain why there are years missing on a resume.

“Even when women try to come back into the workforce, they’re disenfranchised,” Tessitore said. The solution, Tessitore said, is to create incentives for firms to help women coming back to law or that would keep them from leaving at all.

Tessitore also is a strong proponent of women attorneys mentoring their younger counterparts. To her, acting as a mentor is how she’s “paying it forward” for the help she received. “The legal profession is a family,” Tessitore said. “We’re all a family. When someone is falling, we pick them up.”

As for the CBA Women in the Law Section, a task force has been established to figure out ways to combat gender disparities. Tessitore also hopes to build on an initiative launched a number of years ago where Connecticut firms pledge to actively recruit and promote women lawyers and to close whatever gender gaps persist. To date, 11 firms have signed on.

The section also plans to get involved in legislative issues involving women in the workforce and to hold seminars and other events allowing women to network with each other and discuss issues such as advancement within firms and work-life balance.

“Women are incredibly ambitious and wonderful and productive members of the bar, as are men,” Tessitore said, noting that each gender brings a different perspective to critical thinking, management and organization within firms and practices.

Reframing the Issue

As for the NAWL, Anastasia acknowledges the group is rethinking the best way to move forward.

For now, the group has established the NAWL Challenge Club to increase the number of female equity partners. Firms that join the club select two women who attend NAWL events that will, hopefully, prepare them to take on a partnership role. The NAWL also hopes this will create more female mentors for younger associates.

A 2014 NAWL study focusing on retention and promotion of women in law argued that the issue of diversity must be reframed as an issue of losing talent if firms refused to change. That study found that only 6 percent of the participating firms reported no issues with retaining female associate lawyers. Those that did have issues offered several reasons why women leave firms: lack of business development opportunities, lack of female leaders as mentors, confusion about how to get on the track to partner, and the ever-present work-life balance issues.

A number of large firms have women’s initiatives, Anastasia said, but the NAWL has determined that not all firms are dedicating sufficient resources to such initiatives. What firms need to do, Anastasia said, is identify what needs to change within their offices to keep women prospering and interested.

Tessitore agrees. There’s still “a lot of work to do,” she said. “But as long as men and women are on the same page about equality, we’ll get their much more quickly than our predecessors did because they had to fight tooth and nail to get there.”