Susan Smith Blakely

Are Women Lawyers Held to Higher Ethical Standards Than Their Male Colleagues?

I love listening to NPR while I am driving in my car.  Fortunately, or unfortunately as it may be, I live in the Washington, DC area where traffic is worse than most places in the country.  As a result, I spend a lot of time in my car in traffic.  The silver lining is that it gives me a lot of time with NPR.

Recently, while listening to All Things Considered, I heard about a study examining unconscious and subtle biases within the context of whether men or women are more ethical at work.  In examining which group, men or women, receives harsher punishment  for ethical violations on the job, the study concluded that women receive harsher punishments.  The reason why will surprise you.

The study did not conclude that women are less ethical than men.  No, in fact, the study showed that, because people expect women to be more ethical than men, an ethical infraction by a woman is met with greater punishment than the same infraction by a man.

In other words, people react harshly when they are disappointed to find that a woman has acted in exactly the same manner as a man, who they consider to be unethical.  The woman gets punished to a greater degree.  So, the double standard strikes again with particularly harmful results.

You are probably wondering whether this disparity could possibly apply to the legal profession.  Yes, indeed.  Read the dialogue from the radio show to learn about the experience of Mary-Hunter McDonnell, an organizational sociologist at Wharton School, when she was a law student.  Her ethics professor used the example of a shameless attorney in his lecture to highlight unethical behavior.  When he disclosed that the attorney in question was female, an "audible gasp" went through the lecture hall.  The students had associated the unethical behavior with a man, and they were expressing disbelief that a woman had acted in such an unethical manner.

The effects of this stereotype stuck with Ms. Hunter McDonnell.  Years later, in cooperation with colleagues at two other leading universities, the research team turned their attention back to the profession of law and analyzed disciplinary punishments meted out by the ABA.  Their findings confirmed that the positive stereotype that women are more ethical than men ends up having negative effects for the women. Women lawyers had a 35 percent chance of being disbarred for an identical infraction that resulted only in a 17 percent chance of disbarment for male lawyers.

The bottom line is that having a reputation for ethical behavior can get a woman lawyer disbarment at a higher percentage rate than her male counterparts.  Certainly a Catch 22 you want to understand. 

A high pedestal for ethical behavior has been created for women lawyers, and falling off can do some real harm.  Don't compromise your ethics, but be aware what you are up against.

Susan Smith Blakely is the Founder of LegalPerspectives LLC and an award-winning, nationally-recognized author, speaker and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers, young women law students and young women interested in careers in the law.  She is author of Best Friends at the Bar:  What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009), and Best Friends at the Bar:  The New Balance for Today's Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012), which addresses the work-life struggle for women lawyers and includes twelve profiles of women who have successfully transitioned from one practice setting to another.  Her new book, Best Friends at the Bar:  Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, will focus on the responsibilities of law firm leaders and will be released by Wolters Kluwer Law & Business in 2015.

 Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at colleges and universities, law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she has been featured in media including the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, DC Spotlight, Daily Muse and Huffington Post Business.  Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues and the law profession, and she has been a featured speaker at the US Department of Justice, Civil Division.  She is the recipient of the Ms. JD 2015 "Sharing Her Passion Award" for her work on behalf of women in the law.

 Ms. Blakely graduated from the University of Wisconsin with distinction and from Georgetown University Law Center where she was a teaching fellow. She is a member of the CoachSource global network of leadership coaches and a career coach for the Indiana University Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Development and Executive Coaching Academy.   For more information, please visit 



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