Alpha females

March 6, 2014

Do women need to act like men to get on in law?

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Despite the fact that over half of new entrants to the profession are female, less than a quarter of partners in the 100 largest British law firms are female. At equity level, this drops to a shockingly low ten per cent. So where are all the women?

Numerous factors may be to blame for this dearth of top females, from outright discrimination to the fact that many women still bear most of the responsibility for bringing up kids, meaning they are less able to flog themselves in the name of billable hours.

Baroness Hale, Britain’s most senior female judge, suggests that ‘unconscious affinity bias’ is another factor. Those interviewing candidates for promotion are more likely, albeit unintentionally, to select people who have the same characteristics as themselves. In a profession dominated by white men, this means women have less chance of being appointed to the top positions.

If there is a glass ceiling which prevents many women from rising to the top, the question is, how can an ambitious female lawyer break through it? In other words, what does it take to get ahead in a law firm and is this different for men and women?

Ewes in rams’ clothing

Do women need to broaden their shoulders, beat their chests in a show of aggression and shout loudly to get to the top? Or do so-called feminine characteristics of empathy, compassion and caution serve just as well to lubricate the greasy pole?

In the wake of the recession, there was some suggestion that the male-dominated environment of investment houses was to blame. The common line was that men were inherently more likely to take bigger stupid risks and lack the empathy and sensitivity which (apparently) make women better managers, investors and colleagues.

Can this be true? If women really are more risk adverse, surely they would then make the best lawyers and be rewarded accordingly.

Emma Tarran of the College of Law, previously a partner in a City firm, suggests that women in law need intelligence, business acumen, energy, resilience, confidence and thick skin, with clients that love you. These first four of characteristics are unproblematic: there are plenty of clever, commercially-minded women out there. However, confidence and thick skin might be more of an issue.

Not one of the women in The Lawyer’s ‘Hot 100′ list in 2013 had nominated themselves for the accolade. Is this a sign of lack of confidence and a reluctance to blow one’s own trumpet among women in law? As for having thick skin, could it be that women are more likely to take verbal batterings from clients and senior colleagues to heart, eventually putting them off the profession altogether?

Flipping partners

In this (female) writer’s experience, women who have made it to the top in law firms are often confident to the point of aggressiveness, more liable to flip out at poor associates than their male counterparts, and with a hide like an elephant.

Of course, there are some male partners who will bawl you out of the office for failing to adhere to house style, but those partners with the most notorious reputations for losing it are very often female.

Perhaps this is because they are still struggling against a male-dominated culture and feel the need to assert themselves to gain recognition – but sometimes that assertion tips over into aggression.

Perhaps it’s because women with these supposedly masculine characteristics are the ones who are rewarded with promotion – unconscious affinity bias in practice.

Or perhaps men are just as likely to lose their temper, but women who do the same thing are unfairly singled out as it is seen as remarkable and even – dare I say – unladylike.

If women do generally lack certain characteristics which make promotion more likely, it may be another reason to explain why fewer women get to the top. This doesn’t excuse the inability to address external factors affecting female representation in the upper echelons of law, be these unequal burdens of household responsibility or unconscious bias among recruiters, but a greater understanding of how those top women got where they are could help the rest of us.

The idea that men and women are inherently different, with ‘masculine’ traits leading to greater success, is a rather depressing one. However, if a bit of aggression and a greater self confidence leads to more success, so be it. Just try not to take the anger out on the assistants. LM

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