From Working Girl To Law Firm Leader: How To Dispel Stereotypes About Female Managers

In 1987, Alice Sargent, in an interview about her book The Androgynous Manager, said to the Washington Post, “Women in corporate America are bumping their heads on the glass ceiling.”

Just one year later, the phrase “glass ceiling”—popularized in the 1980s–was already starting to get broken.

In 1988, one year after Sargent’s famous statement, the movie Working Girl made it clear women were headed for the manager’s seat to stay. And gradually, in law, women have gained ground—starting in 1994, making up 12.9 percent of law firm partners in America, and making up 19.2 percent of law firm partners by 2009, reports Catalyst compiled data.

But instead of rendering the movie reference moot, these days, statistics only serve to remind women that they continue to rest on unequal standing in the working world.

Today, Melanie Griffith’s relationship with Sigourney Weaver is still quite common—the tumultuous professional bond between female managers and their female secretaries.

In 2009, law professor Felice Batlan asked 142 legal secretaries at larger law firms whether they preferred to work for male or female partners or associates. The secretaries surveyed were highly experienced, middle-aged women working at firms with more than 100 lawyers, reports Above The Law.

Although none of the secretaries impersonated their boss to sell and idea and impress Harrison Ford (we are assuming), legal secretaries preferred, at an alarming number, working for men over women.

In fact, 50 percent of survey respondents preferred working for men, specifically male law firm partners, and 47 percent reported no preference, reports ATL. So why did only 3 percent prefer working for female managers?

“I just feel that men are a little more flexible and less emotional than women. This could be because the female partners feel more pressure to perform,” said one respondent.

“Female attorneys are either mean because they’re trying to be like their male counterparts or too nice/too emotional because they can’t handle the stress. Either way, their attitude/lack of maturity somehow involves you being a punching bag,” responded another female legal secretary.

Unfortunately, these stereotypes are exactly what women managers everywhere fear and hope, in the future, to drive out.

Forbes recently interviewed a variety of powerful working women to dispel stereotypes about female managers.

“The notion that powerful women must be, lead and look like a man really aggravates Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund. In a video interview with Forbes she said–pumping her fist–she hates the idea that ‘you have to look like a businessman’” reports Jenna Goudreau in her Forbes article, “The 10 Worst Stereotypes About Powerful Women.”

The notion that women need not emulate men in the office to be successful there is not new. “You’re the first woman I’ve seen in one of these things that dresses like a woman, not like a woman thinks a man would dress if he was a woman,” Harrison Ford said poignantly in Working Girl.

Similarly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was criticized by the media when she teared up on the campaign trail, reports Forbes. Because Ms. Clinton is typically cool-headed and composed, this example seems to point to the fact that powerful women are held to higher standards when it comes to emotional expressiveness.

So why do these stereotypes exist?

That question may never be fully answered. But, what women managers can address is the methods to defeat these inaccurate descriptions of female leadership. Starting with their attitude toward their female secretaries.

Here’s a start.

Studies show that women perform better in teams than men because they possess the social sensitivity skills necessary to communicate and relate to others more effectively. Reading between the lines, emotional openness (and that does not mean crying at work) allows women to endear themselves to others in the workplace environment more readily.

So, when faced with condescending subordinates or an unfavorable secretary, harness that innate ability. Do what women do best, and tap into those social skills than make women exceptional managers.

Next, form sponsorship groups. As a female law firm partner, build relationships with your younger female associates. Among your legal staff, encourage networking and mentorship woman-to-woman.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and President of the Center, explains, “a sponsor is someone who advocates for my next promotion and speaks of your strengths and makes the case for your advancement in your absence,” in a study conducted by the Center for Work-Life Policy in collaboration with American Express and published by the Harvard Business Review.

For women to advance in the workplace, women must advocate for it first. That means, dispelling stereotypes that exist among one another about each other. You can start with improving that manager-legal secretary relationship.

Take a cliché, formulaic, legging-wearing cue from the last lines of an 80’s movie, which, incidentally, shows off a female manager’s perceptive and exceptional interpersonal skills.

Secretary: “Maybe now would be a good time for you to tell me what you expect of me.”

Manager: “I expect you to call me Tess. I don’t expect you to fetch me coffee unless you’re getting some for yourself….and the rest we’ll just make up as we go along, ok?”

-WB

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