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Working as a Woman in a Male-Dominated Profession: Female and Male Perspectives

Amanda J. Morris and Glaister Brown

Working as a Woman in a Male-Dominated Profession: Female and Male Perspectives
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The number of female attorneys is at a record high! Yet, male attorneys tend to shape the profession's culture because men continue to dominate the senior roles. As a result, female attorneys often face several challenges as they maneuver through their careers. The following perspectives, shared by both a female attorney (Amanda) and male attorney (Glaister), offer insights into uncomfortable issues that often go unaddressed in what is still a male-dominated legal profession.

Women Are Expected to Act a Certain Way

Amanda: The expectation is that male attorneys, and attorneys in general, are strong and assertive. When a female attorney takes on these qualities, she is sometimes considered bossy and controlling. Conversely, women sometimes feel the need to apologize and act overly polite due to social conditioning.

Glaister: I think that this is true—we often expect male attorneys to be alphas and female attorneys to be betas. I know colleagues who might describe male attorneys as “assertive” or “independent” but characterize female attorneys as “difficult” or “too pushy” based on a very similar set of behaviors.

Women Are Expected to Look and Dress a Certain Way

Amanda: I sometimes feel that if I do not look a certain way, perhaps I will be overlooked or receive less favorable results despite my work product. I once witnessed a male attorney insult a female attorney’s performance because he deemed her physically unattractive, even though she was one of the best attorneys at the firm. On the contrary, if a woman is considered too attractive, she is sometimes thought of as less intelligent and less capable of performing the job.

Glaister: My personal experience is quite different, as I have never wondered about my attractiveness in relation to my job. Of course, I make some (and sometimes considerable) effort to appear professional or presentable (i.e., wear a smart suit or other appropriate attire based on the occasion). But, I have noticed an expectation for female attorneys to appear attractive and almost (but not too) sexy. This is one of the ways the legal profession mirrors larger society, but this expectation is quite unreasonable and inappropriate. I also know that female attorneys sometimes pay a very high price when they do not find the right balance.

Women Are Underestimated and Assumed to be Support or Administrative Staff

Amanda: Although it is slowly changing, I believe there is a tendency, whether it is conscious or subconscious, to associate women with less senior roles. There have been instances when it was assumed that I was the paralegal, an assistant, or even a client. Quite often, although my male colleagues are addressed as “Mr.” and “Attorney,” I am greeted by my first name only. I also recall closing deals where the men received a handshake and I only got a wave or smile. I walked away wondering, “Why won’t people shake my hand?”

Glaister: I agree with Amanda that things have changed and are continuing to change. But I think that there is still much room for improvement. Far too often, some of my female colleagues express frustration at the lack of due respect accorded to them versus their male colleagues. I have also seen the surprise that follows when a female colleague is identified as an attorney or the attorney.

Career or Family: Women Must Choose

Amanda: Society expects men to advance in their careers, and I believe there are strong support systems to enable this growth. Although there has been great improvement in this area, there is still a lingering stereotype that a woman’s career will become less of a priority if and when she chooses to raise a family. While this may be true for some, it is certainly not the case for everyone. Due to this belief, some women receive less mentorship and grooming for senior roles. As a woman progresses in her career a growing sense of isolation may occur.

Glaister: This is another area where we have made significant progress. However, men are still often expected to work and provide for the family and women are expected to care for the family, even if they also work. I know that there are firms that offer parental leave from work instead of maternity leave, or paternity leave in addition to maternity leave. These changes have made those firms more family-friendly, at least in name if not in practice.

As the above perspectives show, strides have been made to address some challenges female attorneys face in the legal profession. However, as is also demonstrated by the above perspectives, there remains much room for improvement to continually reshape our profession and improve the work environment for female attorneys in what is still a male-dominated environment.