Resources Articles How Gender Schemas Shape Women Lawyers’ Lives

How Gender Schemas Shape Women Lawyers’ Lives

The Complete Lawyer
Volume 1, Number 1
March 2004

The expressions of incredulity as I delivered my presentation at a law firm retreat several years ago are vividly engraved in my memory. It was the period in the history of the legal profession in America when firms so feared losing their associates to Silicon Valley that salaries had sky-rocketed and retention initiatives were de rigueur. Since law school enrollments of women had just reached the 50 percent mark, the managing partner had asked me to address the implications of this milestone for law firms.

The Huge Disparity Between Policy And Practice

I knew he expected me to discuss flexible schedules - he was quite proud of the fact that for the first time in the firm’s history one woman lawyer was now telecommuting one day per week. However the Massachusetts Women’s Bar, Catalyst and the Project for Attorney Retention had already released reports demonstrating that the choice to utilize reduced-hours schedules was the death knell for women lawyers’ careers. It seemed to me that if this firm really wanted to create opportunities for advancement for its women lawyers, it would have to address the huge disparity between policy and practice. Specifically, I needed to direct my comments to the ways in which implicit assumptions about gender were insidious, though invisible obstacles to career success for women lawyers.

From the moment I began this section of my talk, the interest on the faces of firm managers changed into some combination of bewilderment and outrage. The women attorneys stared at me impassively. At the end of my presentation, the firm moved on to the next order of business. No one said goodbye when I left to catch my flight.

It’s Easy To Deny A Bias When It’s Unconscious

The chilly reception I received should not have surprised me. After all, no one - particularly someone whose career is devoted to justice - likes to think of himself as guilty of stereotyping. It’s difficult to convince ourselves or others that our judgments may be wrong; it’s particularly difficult to convince lawyers who are certain of the logic and rationality of their thinking that their conclusions could be incorrect. And since the nature of the bias I was highlighting is not conscious, it is easy to deny.

To organize and make sense of our complex social world, we all rely on strategies to categorize information. Stereotypes are simply hypotheses about social groups that allow us to make our world predictable. To the extent that our cognitive schemas allow us to make accurate predictions, they reduce our brain’s workload and are adaptive. For example, when the stereotype or schema of teacher is activated for a child in school, the child is likely to “clean up his act,” focus his attention and prepare to listen and learn.

However, if the content of our categories systematically disadvantages members of particular groups, then we have a problem. To the extent our schemas distort our perceptions and blind us to an individual’s competencies, both the perceiver and the person being judged lose.

How Gender Schemas Shape Professional Lives

Gender schemas are culturally-shared, socially constructed hypotheses about how men and women are and should be. They are usually implicit, unarticulated and unacknowledged assumptions. However, they play a central though invisible role in shaping professional lives.

In white, middle class, Western society the gender schema for men describes them as independent, assertive, autonomous, decisive, strong, competitive and task-oriented. In contrast, the gender schema for women describes them as nurturing, sensitive, communal, self-sacrificing, emotional and expressive.

It’s not that there is no truth to these stereotypes. But they are extreme oversimplifications which emphasize some characteristics at the expense of others.

The ” ‘No Problem’ Problem” 1*

Gender schemas are largely responsible for the lack of advancement of women lawyers to positions of leadership and power. But because these schemas are implicit and exert their power without our awareness, they are largely invisible. Deborah Rhode described the presence of gender inequity in the legal profession as the “‘No Problem’ Problem.”

The failure to perceive inequality leads to complacency about gender issues. This point was driven home for me recently in my “Mothers in Law” coaching group. Several group members bemoaned the fact that the diversity initiatives in their firms had recently been redefined to exclude gender issues. Apparently, their firm’s managers believe that they’ve recruited a sufficient number of women lawyers so the “gender problem” no longer exists.

Law Is A Gendered Profession

If you’re a woman lawyer reading this, you know that gender inequities are still alive and well in the legal profession. Gender discrimination is maintained by work practices and cultural norms that have been in place for so long in the legal profession that they appear “normal” and unbiased. Legal practice was created and run by men for more than 130 years. Not surprisingly, the accepted norms, goals, ideals, work practices, and measures of success reflect men’s experiences and life situations.

The ideal attorney is supposed to be tough, aggressive, decisive, competitive, unemotional, forceful, authoritative - the very traits associated with the male gender schema. The ideal lawyer has a singular devotion to the law. A committed lawyer is always available; work is his undisputed top priority.

By definition, women are a poor fit for the law. The characteristics associated with a lawyer are at odds with the traits traditionally associated with women.

Lawyers Assume Their Practices Are Gender-Neutral But They Are Not

I am not saying that men are to blame for the gender inequities that exist in the legal profession today. In fact, many of the men I coach feel constrained by the male gender schema. They are not satisfied with the role of provider - they would prefer to be more actively involved in family life. But to express this wish publicly is to behave in a manner that is counter to the male gender schema - and to risk humiliation, ostracism, possibilities for advancement, or worse.

The problem lies in the profession’s or firm’s failure to question its normative assumptions about competence and work. Lawyers simply assume their practices are gender-neutral when in fact they are gendered. They place anyone who doesn’t “fit” at a disadvantage. Although there may be no intention to discriminate, the failure to question work practices results in unequal opportunities for success and advancement.

Furthermore, just because something has been done in a particular way for a long time does not mean it is the best way. Lawyers suffer the highest rates of depression among all professions measured. Rates of substance abuse, divorce, heart disease and work dissatisfaction far exceed those of the population at large. There is ample evidence that a re-examination of work practices would benefit everyone in the profession.

Schemas Influence Perception, Evaluation And Memory

Obviously, it’s unfair to make a lawyer’s success conditional on conforming to a stereotype. But this is exactly what happens on a non-conscious level every day. Because gender and race are immediately visible, these schemas are easily activated. Once a schema is triggered, it affects how information is perceived. Information consistent with the stereotype becomes salient, and inconsistent information is ignored. For example, many women lawyers have had the experience of answering the phone, only to have the caller assume he’s speaking with a secretary.

People are also more likely to remember information that is consistent with a gender schema and to forget information that is not. Women lawyers who are mothers know only too well that the times they left the office early are easily recalled while their late nights at work have been forgotten.

Social status strongly influences perceptions of competence. Women attorneys of color face the additive effects of gender and racial stereotypes - the “concrete wall” that makes it extraordinarily difficult for women of color to succeed in their firms.

And if all this weren’t enough, in-group members benefit from leniency bias. Male lawyers have to work almost as hard to prove their incompetence as women their competence. Evaluators tend to gloss over their errors and readily forget their mistakes. Considering the ways evaluations are conducted in most law firms, it’s easy to see how schemas can distort reviews while reviewers are certain they’re only responding to the facts.

This is why I didn’t want to just talk about flexible schedules at the law firm retreat. Flexible schedules can only serve as a vehicle for the success of women lawyers if normative assumptions about commitment change. Typically, once a woman lawyer reduces her hours, she’s branded “uncommitted.” The quality of her work assignments plunges; her opportunities for advancement vanish. The prophecy that women “don’t fit” has been fulfilled.

Double Binds And Catch-22s

Even women lawyers who’ve achieved partnership have to struggle with the effects of gender schemas. Many of the women partners I coach have been stunned by upward evaluations indicating that they’re harsh, bitchy and unsupportive. Since the female gender schema is nurturing and self-sacrificing, these women face different expectations from their supervisees than do their male counterparts.

Women lawyers are constantly dealing with double standards. What is assertive in a man is abrasive or overly aggressive in a woman. As a person of lower status, a women lawyer doesn’t have the presumption of competence. Psychological research has repeatedly demonstrated that the identical work product will be judged more severely if it’s attributed to a woman rather than a man.

That means that women have to work harder to prove their ability. However, this is exactly what gets in the way of many of the women attorneys I coach. While they’re busy at their desks trying to make sure they’re producing a perfect work product, their male counterparts are crafting career strategies, proactively seeking out plum assignments and making sure that the right people are aware of their accomplishments.

What happens if a woman lawyer promotes herself? She risks censure. Recently a woman attorney I was coaching related a story about a meeting she’d attended that day. The firm was interviewing new associates and one of the partners remarked that a woman candidate who’d called attention to her accomplishments was obnoxious and self-aggrandizing. He was quite impressed, however, with a young man who’d touted his achievements. The partner praised him for demonstrating the kind of confidence needed in a lawyer. After years of hearing remarks reflecting this kind of double standard, she’d reached her limit. “Why,” she asked, “is it that when a man promotes himself it’s a sign of confidence but when a woman does the same thing, her behavior is criticized?”

Giving The Problem A Name

Debra Meyerson 2* would call my client a “tempered radical.” According to Meyerson, tempered radicals are individuals who differ from the dominant culture of the profession but still feel a commitment to pursue the work they love and/or to earn a livelihood. Rather than conform or quit, they straddle a fine line between assimilating and losing their identity and being marginalized. They fit in just enough to have the knowledge and leverage of an insider while retaining their commitment to work for change in the workplace.

Like my client, they raise objections cautiously and selectively. They give the problem a name. One step at a time, they illuminate the invisible.

It’s Not Your Fault

Perhaps the worst part of gender schemas is the degree to which women internalize them. It’s all too easy for a woman lawyer to see herself as “not tough enough” when she’s upset by another attorney screaming at her.

Fear of being seen as too sensitive/aggressive silences many women lawyers. Trying to prove one’s competence can easily slide into perfectionism. Anxiety about backlash for being too competent often leads women attorneys to minimize their accomplishments or even to feel like a fraud. The possibility of antagonizing the powers that be is frightening. This is what often gets labeled as “fear of success.”

Several years ago I coached a senior associate who had impeccable evaluations and a long history of wins for her clients. In fact, her firm had recently won an appeal in the Supreme Court, and she’d written the bulk of the brief. The managing partner sent out a firm-wide announcement about the successful appeal and included every participant - except my client (the only woman on the case.)

I encouraged her to bring his attention to the oversight. She was sure she’d receive a negative reaction, but accepted my challenge anyway. She wrote him an email noting that he’d accidentally omitted her name, as well as the names of all of the (women) support staff who’d contributed to the case.

The next day the managing partner sent out an updated announcement including all of the women who’d not been given credit before. My client received a personal email from the MP - scolding her for being a prima donna. Interestingly, only a week before, she’d been criticized by a senior partner as “lacking in confidence” because she hadn’t advocated aggressively enough for an assignment she wanted.

Succeeding In Spite Of Bias

If you’re going to be a “tempered radical” you have to have support - like-minded colleagues, other women struggling to accomplish similar changes, a coach. Working to illuminate the invisible is not a task to be taken on in isolation.

Most of all, you have to commit yourself to prevent the assumptions that surround you from becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. If your competence is questioned, you may in fact receive lousy assignments. It may seem as though your chances for career success have dwindled. When you can’t move the earth, you can find a better platform for success. Don’t confuse your job with your career. There are legal workplaces with more women in leadership roles. It’s easier to succeed where you’re not a “token.”

Paradoxically, at the same time you work to reveal the implicit assumptions that block women’s career success, you need to forget about these biases and approach your own career with optimism. Rather than focusing on the risks, set your sights on the opportunities.

Women lawyers, who believe they can, find a way.

Notes1. The Unfinished Agenda: Women and the Legal Profession, by Deborah Rhode for the ABA Commission on Women in the Legal Profession (2001, available at Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work, by Debra E. Meyerson. Harvard Business School Press, 2001.


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