The Talent

April 30, 2009 4:03 AM

The End of Sisterhood

Posted by Ed Shanahan

By Vivia Chen from the May issue of The American Lawyer

The sisterhood of lawyers has never been more potent. In conference rooms and swanky restaurants, women across the ranks--senior partners and associates, general counsel, and staff attorneys--are brainstorming about what it takes for women to succeed in a profession that's still predominantly male. Over sushi, cosmos, and the occasional mani/pedi treatment, they are bonding, united in the mission for gender equality. The message is clear: Women are united, and they want their sisters to succeed.

But scratch the surface a bit deeper, and some members of the sorority tell another story: that women--particularly their immediate superiors--can be their worst tormentors. Fact is, despite the veneer of harmony and the decades of shared struggle, there's tension on the women's front. Talk to any group of women lawyers, and there will be plenty of war stories on the betrayals--real or perceived--that they have experienced at the hands of other women.

These are more than just anecdotes. Last year, in an American Bar Association survey, a majority of female lawyers under 40 expressed a preference for male bosses (the 1,400 respondents gave men higher marks for constructive criticism and keeping confidences). Moreover, in a University of Toronto study of U.S. workers released last fall, women who reported to a female boss claimed greater depression, anxiety, headaches, and other ailments than those who worked for a man.

What makes this different from the usual tensions between boss and subordinates? In a word: expectation. Women expect other women to be more empathetic and nicer--or at least hope they'll be. When their women bosses aren't, some women feel betrayed. And that betrayal can feel especially sharp and personal coming from someone who shares XX chromosomes.

"As postfeminists, we are told that women are nurturers and that we are all in it together," says California-based consultant Peggy Klaus, who conducts workshops for women in corporations and firms. "Women can accept hierarchy from men, they can tolerate their yelling and bad behavior." But when women bosses cross the line, Klaus says, women take it very personally. Moreover, "when women have conflicts with other women, they take it home and nurse it," says Lauren Rikleen, author of Ending the Gauntlet .

Generational differences can aggravate the tension. Former Winston & Strawn partner Jane Pigott, now a law firm consultant, says that the older generation of women lawyers ("queen bees" to the younger set) often made huge personal sacrifices to achieve professional success, and that some expect the next generation to pay the same dues. "After I had my daughter, I didn't want to stay at the office every night for dinner," says an associate at a New York firm. "I don't expect men to understand that," she says, but adds that she was disappointed when she got a similar reaction from a woman partner.

But that sense of betrayed expectation also exists between women in the same generation--particularly where there are few women in top positions. "She will mentor a man before she will mentor me," says one forty-something lawyer at a Fortune 500 company about her female boss. "She wants to be the only woman lawyer representing our group." The irony, she adds, is that her boss is active with the company's women's initiative. Though this lawyer says she gets support from women peers and women on the business side, the sad truth is that "in the direct chain of command, there's still competition [between women]."

All this has the potential for a retro, politically uncomfortable drama. Indeed, the focus on tensions among women strikes some as sexist. "It's a very dismissive notion," says Rikleen. "There's no counterpart to the term 'catfight' when men compete against each other for client credit."

But Rikleen, like others who study women in the legal profession, won't deny that there's something distinctly pointed about the acrimony between women bosses and employees. What's needed, Rikleen says, is "to train women to depersonalize conflict."

A good starting point would be to lower expectations. In fact, those cozy after-work gatherings might be promoting a false sense of intimacy that belies the inevitable tensions of a work relationship. What's more, women need to get over the notion that women will play nice, says Wendy Tice Wallner, who says she learned that lesson when she took up golf for client development: "The competition was palpable in a way I didn't find in playing against men." The lesson, she says, is that women must learn to compete and support each other at the same time. "Necessity will bring them together," predicts Wallner, adding that women need each other to catch up with men on business development. She pauses, then says, "That doesn't mean they like each other."


Are men better bosses than women--especially for women lawyers? 

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You forgot another reason women don't team in the work place - sports. The past generation of women did not play team sports and team sports prepare you for always sticking up for those on the team even if they don't always meet the team's expectations. I witness this it all the time in technology companies with 'guys' sticking together even when someone has made an error. Women do not support one another because they don't have the training and they are individualists. This is changing. My daughter had years of team sports and she does really well with teams consisting of both sexes and both sexes gravitate toward her because of this training.

In addition to sports, girls and boys weren't normally friends when I was growing up. Today, a women's best friend can be a man. This has helped to allow women to become members of the 'boy's team'.

Generation Y has good evolutionary attributes including girls playing team sports more than ever and girls and boys having platonic relationships and not exclusively intimate ones. (I like to call them Generation Why Not?) Androgony is a good thing for both sexes and it is increasing.

I consistently promote women in the workplace to show them that they have to learn how to team better - especially women born prior to Generation Y.

Businesses where women work for and with women will get better. No doubt about it.

I find this all very disappointing, and really had hoped that the old "women are their own worst enemies" narrative was behind us. In my firm, one of Australia and the Asia Pacific region's largest, women are generally very supportive of each other. For example, in my litigation practice in Melbourne, half the partners are women, all but one have children, and until we announced a new partner for 1 July this year, every partner made up since 1991 has been female - I joked this year as I nominated our new partner to the firm's board, it was time for some positive discrimination in favour of the lads! I believe that the reason for the high proportion of women in the practice is that women have actively mentored the associates through to partnership and we have supported each other when we are there. We also present a strong and visible cohort of role models, and illustrate a range of pathways to partnership - some of us work full time, some part time, some have come straight through, others have had their families before they studied law. I think that it is very important for our associates to see that there are many ways to combine career and life outside work, and even more important for them to see women looking out for each other, taking an interest in everyone's lives outside work, covering for each other during leave and emergency, and generally being decent humans. It's not that hard.

To refer to us as "postfeminists" belies the daily struggle of women against inherent and endemic gender-based discrimination. While it might be nice to think that women are able to rise to senior partner, and make 6- or 7-digit salaries, it is a fallacy to assume that there is no longer a glass ceiling or that there is not a salary gap between women and men. Even in "liberal" East Coast law firms, there is no recourse for women associates and staff who are sexually harassed by male senior partners. Outside of major cities, it is a different story altogether, one in which women simply are not treated as the equal of their male counterparts, whether it be a lower salary, the inability to rise, or just a continued lack of respect for their intelligence and ability.

Furthermore, assuming that all women get together with their women co-workers and bosses for cosmos and mani/pedis, and have an expectation of emotional bonding or a "sisterhood" with their fellow women is ridiculously stereotypical and sexist. In my experience, at my firm, nothing of that sort happens; the only thing we expect of our female bosses is for them to treat us, their female employees, with the same dignity and respect as their male employees. To suggest that the solution to this problem is for the employees to lower their expectations is the kind of discriminatory rhetoric that has been used throughout history to keep women quiet.

This article misses the boat. It is the fault of the women who are being tormented because their expectations are off? I've NEVER had a male colleague spread gossip about me or yell at me, yet I've had both experiences with female colleagues. I don't think this has anything to do with my expectations. It is merely bad behavior.

I can tell you - this is a uniquely American phenomenon.

Women whine to and over-share with other women, and not just in the work context. I can't count how often I've been surprised at how women jump so quickly to "commiserate" about some very intimate concerns with other women they had barely met. In the workplace, this is just unprofessional. I don't want my boss (male or female) to stroke my hair and sigh with understanding that I did not meet a deadline because I had a terrible fight with my boyfriend or to talk me through stress, and I certainly have no interest in doing that for someone else. I want honest feedback about my job performance, instruction (including criticism) to help me improve my skills as a lawyer. The kind of empathy and hand-holding people seem to expect from their female superiors should be obtained elsewhere - from friends, sisters, mothers or psychotherapists.

From the tone of both the article and the comments, it appears that patriarchy still reigns supreme in the legal profession -- even the women have sucked it in. Is there not a critical mass of women who can tip the scales to create a more balanced dialogue? Women and men around the world are attempting to bring more feminine energy into the world (whether you call this right brain/left brain, yin/ yang or masculine/feminine). Yet the American legal profession, including most of the women in it, resist -- at enormous cost to the profession, creativity, personal lives, communities, society, and especially our children. Come on, ladies, the dialogue is going on all around us. It's time to wake up and unpack the feminine values that have been drilled out of us -- things like collective intelligence (women's circles), cooperation, innovation, nurturance, and sharing -- for the good of all, not just for the good of the one.

At my only Biglaw experience, I experienced sexual harassment from the older, married, of-counsel guy who was supposed to be supervising my work as a first-year associate --- and no support from the women in HR when I reported the claim. It was understood that after the claim was reported, that I would have to leave --- the firm closed around him and supported *him.* I tried to move to another area of the firm, but was stigmatized, and not successfully absorbed. The stress caused an underlying medical disorder to relapse, taking me out of the legal scene entirely. Only one female partner helped me, but, honestly, I was too frightened to accept her help. How much have things changed? Not enough.

Michelle, I am so sorry that this happened to you. Unfortunately, this happens far more frequently than we think. Yet, women in the legal profession have so bought into the patriarchal model of law firm practice that everyone is too afraid to speak up -- even though both men and women see the toxicity that they have created. It is only when women band together to support each other that change will occur.

In order to balance my own need for the support that women can provide, I have joined a Women's Circle outside of the law firm. I encourage all women, particularly those who suffer at the hands of patriarchy (whether from men or women) reach out for help through these circles.

For information on women's circles, read Jean Shinoda Bolen's books, "Urgent Message from Mother" and "The Millionth Circle." It's only through conscious support and action that change will occur.

Read, in particular, Bolen's stories of the impact of women's circles throughout the world, including in her own medical profession, for some inspiring stories of just how much power we can have if we band together -- in support, not in isolation.

If women supported other women, Hillary Clinton would be President.

To their detriment, women attorneys are female. As a secretary to women attorneys, I had to put a light on an office so people thought they're in; ensure I got lemon bars for lunches; record food lists per nannies; order school books; note if attorneys eat; chart weight loss; wrap gifts; do personal tasks; take clothes to cleaners; plan parties; transcribe personal messages; work on divorce papers; chart billable hours of men v. women, etc. Men, especially partners, just work and bring in

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