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Cornered in the Corner Office

| November 15, 2011

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Recent media coverage propels sexist stereotypes of women lawyers. Here, the author calls for a deeper conversation of the study that fueled bad press.

As young lawyers, my female friends and I are keenly aware that the proverbial glass ceiling has been replaced with a less easily metaphorized web of gender inequality and bias.

We know that no matter how stellar our work performance or how many birthday dinners, anniversaries, weekends or weddings we miss, we’re still last in line for equity partnership, the Mecca of Lawyer-dom. We’re going to have babies, after all, and you know what that means, don’t you? A lawyer who’s also a mom.

Given this reality, I was particularly disturbed to have opened my ABA Journal recently to find even more strikes against us lady lawyers in the article, "Not One Legal Secretary Surveyed Preferred Working with Women Partners; Prof Offers Reasons Why."

The article highlighted a part of Chicago-Kent Law School Professor Felice Batlan’s 2009 study on legal secretaries, revealing their preference not to work with female partners.

Seeking, as Batlan put it, to “deconstruct hierarchies and stereotypes” and evaluate “the gendered hierarchies under which [legal secretaries] labor,” her goal in the study was to analyze stereotypes. The ABA article and its subsequent media attention, however, perpetuated them.

The much loved and consumed website Above the Law ran the piece "Why Legal Secretaries Hate Women Lawyers," and the online site Careerist excitedly claimed "Female Partners Still Unloved." The Wall Street Journal Blog at least acknowledged that 47 percent of those Batlan surveyed didn’t have an opinion at all. But it is clear to me that the central point is still missing.

The real issue here is why legal secretaries preferred working for non-female-partners.

Unpacking the why involves a hard look at our social constructions of gender and the societal expectations they create.

Batlan wrote: “For a woman to serve a man is an arrangement that conforms to and reproduces dominant and traditional, although contested and changing, gender arrangements.” “Gender structures,” she said, “tell men that they are entitled to women's help and that women are supposed to freely give it.” Women, on the other hand, are entitled to no such thing.

The ABA Journal tries to answer the why by pulling out of Batlan’s 40-page study the legal secretaries’ own words: they complained that women partners were “more emotional” and “too independent,” and “try harder to prove themselves.”

These rationales so obviously buy into some very deeply entrenched notions of how women are supposed to behave. Did anyone think to question why female partners are trying harder to “prove themselves” or acting “independent”?Could it be rationalized by the fact that only 15 percent of equity partners (the top of the heap) at AmLaw 200 Firms are women? And since when was independence a bad thing?

If you take a close look at the survey results, you’ll also see our good friend, Emotion, played a starring role; women partners were criticized as “more emotional” than their counterparts. But are they?

“When a man gets upset, that’s seen as understandable,” Professor Joan Williams of the University of California at Hastings explains. “He’s just concerned about quality.” But when a woman gets upset, Williams says, “the same display can be seen as evidence that she’s just too emotional.” She cites studies that actually show that displays of anger in the workplace increase a man’s status, but decrease a woman’s status.

Batlan concludes that female lawyers are “in a double-bind situation.” If they don’t act like men, they’re too emotional, but if they do act like men, they are putting on airs.

Plain as day gender discrimination in the legal profession also explains why legal secretaries prefer male partners to female partners: men have the power at law firms. In fact, a recent ABA Journal article actually found a Wall Street law firm knowingly and admittedly giving higher numerical performance reviews to male associates than female associates with equally positive narrative performance reviews.

“It stands to reason,” Batlan told the ABA Journal in a follow-up article, “that secretaries/assistants want to work for the people with the most power.” Victoria Pynchon, who wrote about controversy over the study for the Forbeswoman blog, agrees. "Your destiny is tied to the person you work for," she said.

Listen, we all know that the media loves a good catfight. But this isn’t the woman-on-woman action they seek. This is simply a case of an environment shaped by deep and disgusting gender biases that pit women against one another. It’s time to elevate the status of female lawyers and legal secretaries alike. Let’s embrace this as the opportunity it is: to have a frank conversation about what’s really going on inside those law offices. 

[Image 2: Simplistic interpretations of law professor Felice Batlan's data provide media fodder.]

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