By Ursula Furi-Perry, Esq. • February 11, 2010•Writers in Residence
Sisterhood. We may not always use the exact term, but we talk about the concept constantly, from women’s bar meetings to conferences discussing the advancement of women lawyers.
According to several reports, the concept of sisterhood among women lawyers – assuming it truly exists – is being threatened. And the greatest source of threat, as it is suggested, may be ourselves.
In an article in Texas Lawyer, writer Michael Maslanka reports on the “queen bee” concept suggested by some articles and books about women at work: “The female imperative, from ancient times, is ensuring offspring survival. A female who is not a team player, who thinks of herself as better than the group, endangers the offspring, so the group isolates her and tosses her aside … So, when a fellow female gets a promotion and acts superior to the group, the ancient wiring fires up and prompts other females to bully and undermine her authority in an attempt to topple the queen bee,” Maslanka explains.
Meanwhile, an ABA Journal article reports on a survey about women lawyers’ surprising preferences. “Among female lawyers under 40 who thought gender matters, 93 percent said female bosses were more demanding than males. A majority said male supervisors give better direction (58 percent), give more constructive criticism (56 percent) and are better at keeping confidential information private (64 percent).”
Adds a New York Times article reporting on a survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, “a good 40 percent of bullies are women. And at least the male bullies take an egalitarian approach, mowing down men and women pretty much in equal measure. The women appear to prefer their own kind, choosing other women as targets more than 70 percent of the time. In the name of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, what is going on here?”
The Times article goes on to state the obvious: women bullying other women means huge threats to the notion of sisterhood that women from generations past have worked so hard to create. “Just the mention of women treating other women badly on the job seemingly shakes the women’s movement to its core. It is what Peggy Klaus, an executive coach in Berkeley, Calif., has called “the pink elephant” in the room. How can women break through the glass ceiling if they are ducking verbal blows from other women in cubicles, hallways and conference rooms?”
In many ways, I think sisterhood within the workplace is a myth. Yet that’s not necessarily because we women lawyers don’t want to band together in efforts to advance all of us in the profession, but rather because many of us are too strapped for time, energy and resources to get our own work done, let alone care about others. I would like to think that most women lawyers are not out to sabotage each other for the sake of sabotage. For many women lawyers, I believe a lack of sisterhood boils down to a simple explanation:
I compare myself to you and compete with you in the process because I’m worried about my own advancement. In essence, I don’t have your back because I’m too busy watching mine.
One may think those kinds of comparisons and competitiveness are natural in law practice, which tends to be rife with competition in general; they are even present in legal academia. “A kind of segregationist mindset exists that makes comparing women to other women almost automatic,” writes OSU Moritz College of Law professor Martha Chamallas in a 2005 paper titled The Shadow of Professor Kingsfield: Contemporary Dilemmas Facing Women Law Professors. “When I read studies about gender-specific comparison groups, I realized that I am in the habit of looking for other women and comparing their position to mine. When I see a brochure about a torts conference, I might look to see whether any of the headline speakers are women. When a school publicizes who has recently received a Chair, I pay special attention to the women. I thought I did this because I am a feminist and am always on the lookout for potential gender bias; however, such gender-specific practices also have a subtle way of measuring one’s own value.”
According to another ABA Journal article, generational tension adds another layer to the issue. “Female lawyers entering the profession often don’t want to make the same personal sacrifices as their predecessors, and they question whether such sacrifices are even necessary to succeed. Senior women may not understand this mindset, much less realize that the playing field has changed, experts suggest. And that can block useful dialogue.” In fact, the same article mentions that when senior lawyers develop a women’s initiative, many younger associates don’t find ithelpful—and that there is no longer such a thing as all women lawyers “being in the same boat,” because young women lawyers have many different role models to choose from and can pick with whom they want to identify. In other words, if sisterhood ever existed across the board simply by way of gender identity and identification, it no longer does.
As a professor/academic support person and columnist, I sometimes wonder: am I helping to sell some barely-existent image of sisterhood to women law students? I am fortunate to have great relationships with women lawyers at many bar associations. I get a great deal of ideas, insights and value out of cultivating those relationships. And I feel that it’s a happy part of my job to be the token “woman” who will bring those women lawyers on campus to meet my women students, who will, in turn, hopefully benefit from the networking opportunities.
Yet if we’re truly our own worst enemies, as some of these reports suggest, then what does that mean for the efforts undertaken by so many women lawyers and organizations to build sisterhood and toil away at advancement for women in the profession as a whole? Are those visions of sisterhood still present – and will they be around for future generations of women law students – or are they misguided in some sense?
I do think women’s bar associations and other groups provide tremendous value, and I think the greatest value comes from the candid conversations in which women lawyers share their own struggles and insights. That said, I also think those kinds of candid conversations are best had outside of one’s workplace, with other women lawyers who may be happy to mentor yet less likely to be in a position of direct competition with the mentee. I want my students and readers to know that it is possible to find meaningful relationships with other women lawyers. But I also note widely reported
sentiments that sisterhood in the workplace can’t be expected coming out of law school: you’re entering a competitive work environment, and much of your competition comes from other women.
Sisterhood does exist. You might just have to go outside of your direct competition to experience it.
In next month’s Ms. Prof. column: My love-and-hate relationship with Elle Woods: tune in next month to read about pop culture figures depicting women law students, their implications on your first job, and ways to overcome negative stereotypes.