Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Nice girls don't get the corner office

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.


KayZee said...

Great post AMA. Not only was it really well written, but also, the topic is really interesting. When Prof. Pruitt sent out that article regarding female legal secretaries, I could not help but catch myself agreeing. I have now worked in the capacity of a paralegal and a summer associate (in the same firm no less) and I've heard and personally experienced some of the sentiments expressed in the ABA Journal's article.

As a paralegal, I often felt as though I was being treated differently by female attorneys than the male paralegals. The treatment wasn't always positive. At the same time, I would argue that I was probably treated differently by the male attorneys than the male paralegals. I was never made to feel uncomfortable in any way, but, I can remember times at which my mistake or achievement may have been approached differently than with my male coworkers.

I think you bring up two very interesting (and true) points. First, you express hopelessness at the suggestion that women do not treat other women, especially women in power, well. I couldn't agree with you more. I have often thought that we are our own worse enemies. I'm not sure how to change that trend. I'd like to think it might be as simple as "treating others as you'd like to be treated," but something tells me it's a bit more complicated than that.

Second, you suggest that we should let "women be women...even at work." I wonder what that might look like. How do you define what a women "is?" Are powerful women assumed to be "bitchy" because they are trying to act like powerful men, in which case we should start encouraging women to stop acting like men? Or, are powerful women more aggressive, and we just need to stop demonizing "unladylike" behavior? Again, I'm not sure where the trend is going or how to approach the issue.

If only we could snap our fingers and break all existing stereotypes, huh?

Brown Eyed Girl said...

Like KayZee, I also subscribe to the "own worst enemy" argument. Based on my own personal experiences, I have often been struck by the level of backbiting that goes on amongst female legal secretaries and female attorneys. I can recall countless moments in the lunchroom when the secretaries would gather together and tear down the female attorneys in the office, criticizing them for their "high-strung emotions" or lack of femininity.

While the results of this study are very interesting, I struggle with whether these female attorneys truly are more difficult to work with than men or whether they are more harshly scrutinized by their female subordinates? Some of the most critical females in my office were older, more experienced legal secretaries. They had been working in the legal field for several decades. Perhaps, having worked in a field dominated by males for so long, these women have come to expect certain behaviors from the sexes. As female attorneys rise in power, are they upsetting the firm culture that these older female legal secretaries have become so comfortable with? As they reject their traditional roles, are other, older females secretaries subconsciously growing jealous of their success? Jealousy may be too strong a word but I would be interested to explore whether these results were possibly influenced by legal secretaries, who enjoy a more traditional world, rejecting female attorneys, who are leaving behind traditional roles to find empowerment.

tomindavis said...

I have not yet worked in a professional corporate/law firm culture. Yet it is clear from articles such as the one you reference --and from repeated testimonials from practitioners and from fellow students-- that it still can be extremely hard to be a career woman, and to retain those traits that make one a woman. When the paradigm is one of femininity vs. successful businessperson, the bind is, as you call it, a "double" one.

I'd like to instead hear more stories showing that the feminine vs. successful dynamic is being exploded, so that (as you endorse) women can hold on to those traits that help them define themselves as women, while being able to be strong, driven, career-minded and successful in the professional world.

Apparently, as we learned from Katy in class some weeks ago, some more enlightened Bay Area firms have made attempts to counter the double bind, often clumsily with the "Lady Bro" moniker -- an unsatisfactory but respectful attempt to change the pattern.

In the end, as a man I feel uncomfortable to know that I may end up in a workplace that employs these kinds of attitudes -- where women don't like working for other women, and where putting candies on one's desk is as much as indicating that a woman is too womanlike to hack it in the corporate world.

Rose Sawyer said...

KayZee, you ask what does it look like when "women are women." Good question. I believe that the answer to that lies in the Leigh Goodmark article, "Autonomy Feminism." Though that article speaks to domestic violence, and not workplace dynamics, some of its tenants are readily applicable here.

As Goodmark writes in her article, “[T]he unifying idea behind the various uses of the notion of autonomy is that of 'self-government' -- being or doing only what one freely, independently, and authentically chooses to be or do.”

To that end, I think that autonomy means acting as one wants to, not as one feels that he or she "should." Of course, any workplace is going to impose certain social expectations on its workers -- but what I think we're trying to move away from is an environment in which those expectations are very different for men than for women.

I think the problem with looking at these sorts of situations are that they are multi-dimensional. A worker might be legitimately criticized for being un-likeable. If the basis for that foundation is because she's being unpleasant in a way that transcends gender expectations, then the dislike is arguably legitimate. However, if the dislike stems from gender expectations – subconsciously or no – then it’s just sexism.

An example. There will always be pressure to be amiable, but an authenticated woman will speak directly to her co-workers while worrying that, at worst, they will think she is a “jerk” – not a “bitch.” (In my experience, “bitch” has a lower threshold than “jerk.”)

I think the solution is simply to get more women into the workplace. When there are only a few women, it’s easy to force them into some kind of pre-determined mould. When there are more women, however, their differences become apparent and it’s more difficult to draw shallow, sexist conclusions.

Ringo1985 said...

I think that you bring up a very important part about corporate culture and law firm culture. It always seems to me that women "size each other up" more harshly then men, and I have always wondered how to avoid the backwards phenomenon that appears to pit women against other women.

The struggle to be accepted in the workplace is difficult, and its hard to discern exactly what type of woman one can be in the workplace. It seems as if we are "damned if we do, damned if we don't." Women who eschew overtly feminine traits and strive to be just like the men are criticized for betraying their femininity. Women who act "too girly" are also judged for failing to adapt to corporate culture. It almost seems as if the asexual, compliant, dutiful and intelligent worker will face the least amount of criticism. Yet to encourage women to trade individuality for automaton behavior is hardly desirable.

I'm not sure where the answer lies,but I know that women must be able and willing to help other women. Again, I'm not sure how to achieve equality in the workplace or overcome the existing trends that reinforce negative behavior towards women. But I think open discourse about this topic is the first step.

VK said...
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VK said...
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VK said...

This post and its comments are really interesting, and I share most of the opinions expressed there. However, my point of view slightly diverges on some points. Indeed, I consider myself as one of the girls who have a so-called “feminine attitude,” in the sense that I do not talk easily, it’s very difficult for me to express my opinion in a public sphere, and I devalue myself constantly, etc.
But for me, all these characteristics are not feminine. They are only a representation of feminity that I was taught, as you perfectly wrote in this post. They are not fundamentally linked to me, but society formed me in order for me to become like this. They are a burden to me. Thus, the advice provided by Lois P. Frankel in "Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office 101" or by Sheryl Sandberg in "Lean In" speaks to me. So I see this kind of advice in a positive way, not trying to oppress me and putting the fault on me as a girl, but as some advices that help me to take away bad habits, like trying to express my opinion and stopping devaluating myself.