The concept of the “glass ceiling” is certainly not a novel topic in feminist forums, but as we law students approach our law career debuts, women’s unique circumstances in the workplace are quickly becoming more relevant. After a year or two of law school, many of us have gone through the application and interview process, spent summers in firms or with judges, and are now ready (so we think) to take the plunge into the professional world. And while we may have had an abundance of guidance leading us to this point, it seems we have little support as to how to proceed in professional spaces rife with persistent sexism.
The reality is that while women today are more prevalent in the higher echelons of professional and management positions than ever before, they are still functioning in a man’s world. Aside from the familiar depressing numbers (only 18% of firm partners are women, etc.), women battle with an unspoken message that forces them to be adequately feminine and to exhibit certain “masculine” characteristics in order to succeed. Yet, achieving this balance seems to be either unattainable or just another excuse for sexism.
A recent survey of legal secretaries reveals the reality of this double bind. In 2009, a Chicago-Kent law professor conducted a survey of legal secretaries which revealed that 35% preferred working for male partners, 15% preferred working for male associates, 3% preferred working for female associates, none preferred working for female partners, and 47% had no opinion - that means that 50% of those surveyed preferred working with men, while only 3% preferred women. The ABA Journal recently published an article evaluating this study, titled, “Not One Legal Secretary Surveyed Preferred Working with Women Partners; Prof Offers Reasons Why.” Among the reasons stated for not preferring to work for female attorneys were comments citing female bosses being “too emotional,” “a pain in the ass,” and “either mean because they're trying to be like their male counterparts or too nice/too emotional because they can't handle the stress.” The article posits that the arrangement of a woman serving a man conforms to dominant and traditional gender roles, and that a nonconformist arrangement (female bosses) leaves women in the familiar double bind.
Women are taught how to interact in society from a very young age, and most women grow up learning that to be socially acceptable they must be pleasant, attractive, uncontroversial, polite, caring, and selfless - “ladylike.” Yet, article after article points to these very behaviors to explain why women don’t achieve the same rate of success as equally positioned men. In her book Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office 101, Lois P. Frankel offers “101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers." Some of the tips she suggests for women looking to get ahead in their careers are: don’t ask permission, stop apologizing, market yourself, don’t be afraid to sit at the head of a table, and (my favorite) don’t keep cookies or candies on your desk. Further, her website warns, “girlish behaviors such as these are sabotaging your career!” In a recent article, Four Ways Women Stunt Their Careers Unintentionally, the authors cite similar behaviors holding women back: being overly modest, not asking, blending in, and remaining silent. What’s a well-raised woman to do?!
Workplace advancement is not so much about conscious discrimination anymore as it is about biases; women are being hired, they just aren't rising in the ranks at the same rates. And while many factors contribute to this, women who want to advance are being told, even by other women, that they need to turn off their “sabotaging girlish behavior.” This is sending the wrong message; women should be advising other women to be confident women - not to act like men, or to stifle their femininity, but to engage as confident, self-assured, and self-respecting women. Unfortunately, it is evident that women aren’t raised in a society that values confident, competent women. As the documentary Miss Representation points out, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” If young women aren’t provided with images of powerful, confident women who aren't ridiculed as “bitches” or “hags” or scrutinized for their looks, how can we expect them to either (i) strive for success, or (ii) promote a healthy and realistic example for other professional women? The result seems to be that professional women either remain relegated to lower positions, or they become a negative and unpopular caricature in their efforts to get ahead.
Although I believe that much of the advice given to women in the aforementioned articles is probably good advice, it seems to skirt the real issue. After reading the survey results alongside the advice articles, I’m left with a feeling of hopelessness. I feel depressed because women are not even respecting other women in power. I feel angry because women continue to end up with the raw end of the deal. And I feel hopeless because women are left with no guidance and no recourse when they face these dilemmas.
This issue is less about women in the workforce and more about how women and men are raised. Rather than follow advice based on stereotypes (however true some of them may be), it is time to start empowering women to be women - even at work! In order for women to truly be treated as equals at work, we must start by providing girls with positive and powerful role models. It is high time that both women and men are provided with strong, healthy images of women. Hopefully, this will begin to reverse the unfortunate trend which leaves girls with greatly diminished self-confidence by the time they reach middle school. And from there, hopefully women will be able to act “like women” (and be respected as such!), rather than try to contort themselves into the unattainable, unrewarded, and unpopular image of an androgynous businessperson.