Promoting gender equality

In Andrea Kramer's office are photos of loved ones and her quote made out of wood that a friend gave her. - Natalie Battaglia
In Andrea Kramer's office are photos of loved ones and her quote made out of wood that a friend gave her. —Photo by Natalie Battaglia
February 2012

Empowering women starts at home for Andrea Kramer.

Kramer, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery, instills in her 21-year-old daughter Cynthia Harris many of the same career lessons she has shared with the legal community for years.

Her daughter may plan to go into the medical field, not law, but 56-year-old Kramer said that does not matter: Gender inequality exists in multiple professions.

"As women, we have to prove ourselves, we have to dance. We have to do it better, we have to do it faster," said Kramer, head of McDermott's financial products, trading and derivatives group. "We have to find ways to distinguish ourselves so we're going to be selected."

Kramer has earned attention and praise for speaking out about how industries can address gender stereotypes in the workplace. She advocates for gender equality through published articles and speeches and counsels other professional women, including through the Women's Leadership & Mentoring Alliance (WLMA), a group she helped establish in 2005.

"I believe that women can help themselves and I think that men have a lot to learn as well about what they can do to do a better job of understanding the communication differences," she said. "And if men would be required to understand those differences instead of just me preaching to the women about what they need to do, I believe that could go a long way."

Colleagues call the Chicago native selfless of her time and advice.

Accolades on Kramer's LinkedIn profile read like a review of some great movie that reviewers urge people to see: "Brilliant," a "Renaissance woman," "5 out of 5 stars!"

"Andie is truly a thought leader and innovator on the issues of gender equality," said Jeffrey Stone, co-chair of McDermott and head of the firm's management committee. "She has performed an extremely valuable role in identifying (equality issues), not only for our law firm, but for our profession."

By Kramer's own admission, she never expected to encounter the kind of discrimination she now works to expose and attempts to eradicate. Her instincts lead her through the oft-frustrating world of office politics and to a goal of inspiring women and businesses to stamp out discrimination.

A startling awakening

After graduating from Northwestern University School of Law in 1978, Kramer faced the fortunate predicament of multiple good job opportunities.

Eager to seek a career in tax law, two offers seemed most promising: one at a large, prominent firm with a prestigious tax department; the other, at a smaller startup with no tax practice.

"I was torn because obviously the opportunities would be very different," she said.

Excited by the challenge of establishing a tax division, Kramer joined the smaller Coffield, Ungaretti, Harris & Slavin (now Ungaretti & Harris).

She dove into voracious tax and financial markets research, taking a particular liking to the world of derivatives. She began building her own department.

"I got an enormous amount of responsibility," she said. "And they couldn't care what you looked like, what your genetic makeup was, what your chromosomes were.

"The only thing that mattered was whether you were a good lawyer."

She carved out a professional path within the tax and financial industries and built a slate of clients. Eventually, the time came when Kramer needed a larger platform: a national firm, with New York and Washington, D.C., offices, where her clients could better address their Wall Street and regulatory needs.

She joined McDermott as a partner in 1993 and began experiencing something she did not face during the first 14 years of her professional life.

"I didn't know anything about office politics," she said. "I was floored.

"I knew there would be a lot of changes in going to a large firm. What I had not expected was that I would see gender discrimination."

For example, she noticed she wouldn't be offered some of the same project opportunities as the firm's male partners. No longer did she feel as if her sex were irrelevant to her legal career.

"Twenty years ago when I joined McDermott, it was not just at McDermott," she said. "It was at every large firm that I was dealing with on a daily basis."

Empowered as a partner with her own list of clients, Kramer began speaking out about how differently she saw the firm's men and women being treated.

Doing something like that, she said, can be an easier task for someone walking into a firm as an established lawyer with a full Rolodex.

"That gave me an opportunity to sort of raise issues and make changes and suggest changes in a way that you can't, or you're not comfortable with, if you're the new kid on the block," she said.

Even then, she said, "It took a while to get my voice heard. But it did not take a long time for small changes to be made and you start with small changes."

She helped start the firm's racial/ethnic and gender diversity committees in the 1990s (the committees today are joined as one) and administered a professional development survey to the firm's lawyers. Kramer found particularly interesting the survey responses that revealed people who received a mentor felt much more resilient to office politics than those who did not.

That finding prompted the firm to create in 2004 McDermott University, a departmental training program. The program establishes yearly goals for new firm attorneys, evening out expectations from the start.

McDermott University had two purposes that Kramer focused on from the diversity side: mentoring and the requirements to advance from one level of practice to the next. She said this meant all second-year litigators and all fourth-year corporate lawyers needed to complete certain responsibilities. With diverse lawyers, she said, having these requirements spelled out made it impossible for a diverse lawyer to be given only the work of a junior lawyer and then held back from promotion, she said.

No attorney would be set up to fail or lose on promotion opportunities as long as they followed and met the university's annual benchmarks.

"McDermott's very forward-thinking," Kramer said of the program's buy-in. "I think it's really a great place."

But it does not look and feel like the McDermott of 20 years ago, she said.

Kramer began urging women starting out to seek collegial support. And she started mentoring other female lawyers, in her firm and beyond, and those in other professional services.

"You need a mentor," she said. "You need a system that's not going to allow you to flounder. You also need to have somebody you trust. It doesn't have to be at your firm, it doesn't have to be a lawyer."

Creating a path

The work Kramer began handling in the area of gender diversity grew and grew. Her calendar began filling with white paper deadlines and conference speaking engagements and colleagues from within McDermott and beyond started taking notice of her quest.

In Andrea Kramer's office are photos of loved ones and her quote made out of wood that a friend gave her.
Photos by Natalie Battaglia.

"I've been inspired as I've watched her," said Carolyn Gleason, an international litigator in McDermott's Washington, D.C., office.

Though they worked in different offices, Gleason came to know Kramer at firm meetings and through Kramer's equality work. Gleason said she plans to follow Kramer's footsteps and structure a kind of advocate program for young female lawyers in the firm's D.C. office.

"As I look at our young women coming in, it's occurred to me I need to do more of what Andie does," Gleason said.

Unlike Kramer's impetus, Gleason is not responding to any particular discrimination problem in her office. Rather, Gleason said, she wants to help foster a "sense of solid community" among new attorneys.

"We want to support them, want to help teach and help market one another across groups and champion them," Gleason said.

Facing her own busy workdays, Gleason commended Kramer for volunteering countless hours to help guide others' careers smoothly.

"In order for this to work, it takes time, spending time," Gleason said, adding that Kramer talks to dozens of women, of all ages, every month about their workplace worries.

"She has an esprit de corps, a 'one for all and all for one' personality that makes her a joy to work with," she said.

"She believes in the health of the team; it tends to be infectious."

Plenty of women catch Kramer's zest for respect beyond McDermott's walls.

Wendy Manning met Kramer a few years ago through WLMA. The group helps mentor women and train them to be leaders throughout their careers.

Manning, who now handles communications and marketing for Boeing in Chicago, attended a WLMA event hoping to meet senior-level women who might help her through a tough time in her career.

Around that time, she got laid off and sought help in landing something new that might offer her advancement opportunities.

"Andie's steadfast commitment to how women talk about themselves in performance evaluations has been particularly helpful for me," Manning said.

Employee self-evaluations became a kind of breeding ground for what Kramer said became her gender equality "crusade."

About 10 years ago, while serving on McDermott's compensation committee, Kramer regularly reviewed hundreds of colleagues' self-evaluations. She learned that women and men talked about their work and accomplishments in dramatically different ways.

"Then it became clear to me that women were hurting themselves (through reviews)," Kramer said.

She began recognizing distinctions in tone and language. She started blindly guessing whether each evaluation came from a man or woman, establishing a pattern of underlying gender differences.

"(It) left me with no doubt that the advancement of professional women was being negatively affected by largely subconscious gender stereotypes and the communication differences that play into them," Kramer wrote for the Women's Bar Association of Illinois.

In 2007, Kramer authored an article published in the Women Lawyers Journal titled "Bragging Rights: Self-Evaluation Dos and Don'ts," in which she said women should approach their evaluations with the same exacting effort that they put into their client projects.

"Women who deliver first-rate, fabulous work products don't get the credit and the acknowledgment on their work product because they have been discounted; that the work that they do, by the time the work gets back to whoever's reading it, it doesn't matter what they say," Kramer said.

When asked if women realize how their evaluations can actually be a detriment to their careers, Kramer said, "No, not a clue."

Manning considered herself one of those women.

"I never felt I was particularly good or thoughtful about those evaluations," she said.

When she later faced evaluation time with a supervisor, she recalled Kramer's tips. Among them was truly claiming her work as her own, specifically using "I" when describing how a project was undertaken.

"I don't think I've ever really sort of stepped back and said 'I,'" Manning said.

Detailing her project work, Manning fought the urge to say "team." But taking Kramer's advice, she said she felt better prepared for conversations with her boss and the way she promoted her own successes. Taking ownership paid off, and Manning advanced in her position.

"(Kramer's) just helping women to be women, and to acknowledge that the caring that you have, or the relationship-building you do in your work has value," Manning said.

Giving of her time

Kramer is "extraordinarily generous" with her time, Gleason said. "I cannot imagine her turning away a request."

Gleason recalled a recent dinner of several female lawyers that Kramer couldn't attend.

What inspires Andrea Kramer?

Who mentored you early in your career? The four partners of what was Coffield, Ungaretti, Harris & Slavin: Mike Coffield, Rich Ungaretti, Steve Slavin and Alton Harris (her husband).

What music do you listen to for inspiration? Bob James, Earl Klugh and Eva Cassidy.

Name a person who inspires you. My husband, Alton Harris, and my daughter, Cynthia Harris.

What’s the biggest change to the legal community? (She answered this as relevant to her practice, her expertise): Financial industry regulation has really turned the industry upside down. For so many of my clients, they’ve been immobilized, not knowing what to do. Some have been proceeding cautiously, trying to put themselves in compliance with the new laws.

What’s the biggest challenge in your day-to-day job? We have so many commitments to meet. Every day is a new challenge.

Instead of simply sending polite regrets, Kramer sent each of the diners, about a dozen, personalized, hand-written notes in her stead.

"I have no doubt she writes truckloads of these letters," Gleason said.

All of this stems, Gleason and Manning said, from a genuine desire to advise when possible and to help when needed.

Manning lauded Kramer's "researcher's mind" and her stamina. "She's also an incredible hard worker, which I value, and she's not victimized about it," she said.

Her perseverance also earned Kramer accolades from professional organizations.

The Women's Bar Association gave Kramer a 2011 "Women with Vision" award, saying she "has been a remarkable and influential voice in support of professional women, gender equality and at-risk populations that include women, children and elders."

Kramer belongs to several professional groups, including the National Association of Women Lawyers and the International Bar Association. She maintains a healthy philanthropic life throughout the city with groups that provide women with various social services.

She serves as chairwoman of the Chicago Foundation for Women and was a founding board member of the Women's Treatment Center, a rehabilitation facility for alcohol and substance abuse.

But she handles these passion projects on top of a hectic legal schedule. She recently testified before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee on tax treatment of financial products.

Stone of McDermott said her getting asked to testify is "a reflection of her technical prowess" as "one of the leading experts on the taxation of financial products."

"She is enormously dedicated to her clients," he said. "She works incredibly long hours, she gets to know and understand their businesses, their personnel challenges. She takes on a counselor and consigliere role."

With such a heavy load, there's little time allowed to stress. But when it comes, Kramer craftily exorcises it.

"I made this," she said recently, gesturing to the string of large, black and white beads dangling from her neck.

The beads came from Africa, purchased during a visit last year to attend work training.

And though it may look pretty, she said she doesn't typically make necklaces. She prefers making napkin rings and gives them as gifts. The multitasker often crafts them while watching TV with her family.

Gleason received some as a gift and her 6-year-old daughter immediately coveted them. Kramer e-mailed the girl, saying, " 'I will make you 16 rings for your next feast,' " Gleason said.

"That's a powerful message to a young girl," Gleason said of the attention Kramer showed the child.

Napkin rings or not, part of Kramer's goal involves sending powerful messages to girls.

Instilling confidence in girls early in life remains a key to helping them address potential gender equality tensions later in the workplace, Kramer said.

That's why she and others with the Chicago Foundation for Women focus on providing technology and science resources for girls. Those kinds of educational opportunities are going to be a vital way for young women to pursue economic security, Kramer said.

Because of her work, it's not surprising that Kramer lists her daughter, Cynthia, as a daily inspiration in her legal and equality work. Kramer cites her other chief inspiration as her husband and fellow attorney Alton Harris.

Cynthia said she's always been conscious of stereotypical gender roles and does her best to avoid them.

"I think that that's been something that I've been aware of because of how much she's talked about how held back women in her law firm and other law firms (have been)," Cynthia said.

Cynthia cautioned that she and her mother do not always agree on the career advice she doles out. Cynthia finds that the advice actually acknowledges there are more gender differences out there even today. But she praised her mother's approachability to younger professionals.

"She really has cultivated that over the years, this practiced ease," Cynthia said.

It's important, she said, especially when you're pointing out the ways in which your behavior may actually be hurting you.

There's something about Cynthia's chosen path in medicine that touches on the analogy about the acorn and the oak.

She studies in a science program designed to broaden a doctor's exposure to the world and humanity. Through research data and surveys, her mother has taken a scientific approach to better understand human relationships.

Kramer hesitated little when asked how Cynthia might fare in the "real world" of sometimes confused gender communications. With a confident laugh, Kramer said, "She's very equipped."