About Us Ellen in the Press The Goldilocks Problem

The Goldilocks Problem

New York Law Journal, The Gender Gap
September 29, 2006
By Melissa McClenaghan Martin

It's a problem no one wants to talk about, and yet it is one of the greatest barriers to the advancement of women attorneys. Carolyn Buck Luce, co-chair for Ernst & Young's Professional Women's Network in the Northeast and leader of its Global Pharmaceutical Sector calls it "the Goldilocks problem."

"Women attorneys are criticized for being too little of this or too much of that; not confident enough or too confident; not aggressive enough or too aggressive; not ambitious enough or too ambitious. But women are seldom just right," said Ms. Luce, who also chairs the Hidden Brain Drain, a task force that helps employers retain women.

The root of the problem is gender bias, and virtually all of us are offenders. Our biases are often unconscious. They operate automatically, distorting information and reinforcing themselves by giving salience to information that is consistent and dismissing that which is not. As a result, our biases skew our first impressions of others, our judgments about their competence, and which facts we recall about their performance.

"As leaders of the legal profession, men also are presumed to be more competent, but lower status groups like women are implicitly assumed to be less competent," said Ellen Ostrow, a psychologist and the founder of Lawyers Life Coach, an organization providing career coaching to women attorneys. Several psychological studies have found that women leaders are judged more negatively than equally skilled men in male-dominated fields but equally competent in female-dominated fields.

Because we tend to remember information that confirms our presumptions, errors committed by female attorneys may be more salient and therefore more likely to be remembered than those committed by male attorneys, who are presumed more competent.

However, research shows few characteristics on which men and women differ along gender lines. Surveying more than 40 studies, researchers found little difference between women and men's leadership styles, according to the 2005 Catalyst study.

Persistent Stereotypes

Still, stereotypes regarding male and female professional abilities remain.

"When a moment of low confidence or uncertainty comes from a man, who we presume to be naturally confident, we are more likely to dismiss it than when it comes from a woman, who doesn't benefit from the same presumption," said Ms. Ostrow.

Women attorneys "walk a fine line," noted Ms. Ostrow. Qualities that are seen as desirable or acceptable in a man are often criticized in a woman.

"If women behave in ways that are inconsistent with their gender stereotypes, there is often a backlash," she said.


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