A new study shows that female lawyers may be unpopular with legal secretaries. Is this because lady lawyers are just too busy to be nice, or because people have higher expectations of female bosses?
The ABA Journal reports on a study of 142 legal secretaries, 95% of whom were female, which found that 50% preferred to work for men, while 47% had no preference regarding gender. That means just 3% prefer to work for a female lawyer. Why is that? Above the Law offers this speculation:
Among the long list of things that Biglaw women have to worry about — making partner v. making dinner, picking up documents v. picking up the kids, cleaning up the house v. cleaning up a brief — being cordial to coworkers sometimes tends to fall by the wayside.
Indeed, some of the secretaries said women seemed to be passing their workplace-discrimination woes along to their staffs. Said one, "Females are harder on their female assistants, more detail oriented, and they have to try harder to prove themselves, so they put that on you." Another: "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." But are women actually meaner than men, or are they just judged more harshly for their behavior? Says study author Felice Batlan, "For a woman to serve a man is an arrangement that conforms to and reproduces dominant and traditional, although contested and changing, gender arrangements." And one of her subjects bears this out, saying,
My partner in particular tends to forget the little things. I often find myself tailing him as he's walking out the door to a meeting going down a list of things he may need. Oddly, I don't feel like my female attorneys need that kind of attention.
This was actually a criticism — apparently, some secretaries felt that female attorneys were too "independent." But if they had required a long list of "little things" from their secretaries, would they have been seen as incompetent or demanding? Deviating from the woman-serves-man script may unconsciously displease employees — it may even stress them out. This kind of leaves ladybosses up a creek — writes Debra Cassens Weiss of ABA Journal, "Batlan suggests that women lawyers may be 'in a double-bind situation.' If they don't behave like males, they are perceived as too emotional, and if they do act like men, they are perceived as putting on airs." One secretary's comment illustrates this disturbingly well:
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.
Whether female lawyers are taking out their stress on female employees or falling victim to gender stereotypes governing appropriate boss behavior, the study is yet another indication that women's problems in the workplace go far beyond overt discrimination.
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